Everyone has a little Jane Austen in their life.
If you've never picked up a Jane Austen novel in your life, I still believe you will enjoy this book. I can't say this for certain (since I have read them all) but I feel pretty confident in that diagnosis.
The Jane Austen Book Club is about five women and one man, all at different points in their life but with a common appreciation of good literature. As you can probably tell from the title, they come together to form a book club working it's way through the Austen oeuvre. Through a combination of literary discussions and flashbacks to their younger selves, we come to know and love each of them. At its heart, it's a simple story about normal people who are just searching for what they want in life and love.
Do you need to know Jane Austen to appreciate this book? I think not. Will you probably grasp some deeper themes if you have? Very likely. Certainly, Fowler has tied each of these characters to one of the heroes in Austen's oeuvre, though I found it particularly remarkable that she avoids a direct 1:1 correlation - there is not an Elizabeth Bennet striding confidently through the book. But she exists a little in this person, and a little in that person, and perhaps most strongly in yet another who simultaneously shares some of the Charlotte Lucas qualities. (And if you don’t know who any of those people are, fear not! The characters in the book will help you to know what you need to know)It very deliberately and delightfully stays away from being a modern-day reinterpretation of Austen's characters and instead explores what it is that makes Austen still so popular today.
My personal history with Jane Austen started when I was in high school. I've read Pride and Prejudice so many times the book cover has fallen off my copy (though my favorite is Persuasion). I have read all her books, though there are some I come back around to more often than others. And while I understand her flaws as an author, her themes are astoundingly universal. Her characters still resemble people we know today. The situations and familial relationships and societal gender roles still ring true. It's part of what makes her work continue to live on and be adapted into movie after movie. The Jane Austen Book Club examines these universalities through an amazing cast of present-day characters.
Fowler's writing is impeccable and she, not unlike the author she is channelling, brilliantly has her finger on the pulse of modern relationships. Every character is unique, well-rounded, intriguing, familiar and completely lovable. I highly recommend this book for some light summer reading, and if you haven't picked up some Austen before opening the cover, I'd bet you will want to once you've finished.
Karen Joy Fowler
I just have to add this postscript for anyone who saw the movie adaptation that came out in 2007. The book is, as almost always happens, just so much better.