It looks so lovely outside when I gaze out the window, but I know it is bitterly cold and windy today, which makes this another good day to stay inside with a hot cup of tea and a good book…mmm!!
I had a meeting planned for Thursday night for my Friends’ book group. We were going to discuss Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and I had fully intended to read this novel before the meeting. I started this short novel early last week, but by Day 3 of reading, I was only 50 pages in. I was also scheduled to facilitate a book discussion group on Saturday with a Seniors’ group, and since I was facilitating that group, I thought I should give myself enough time to finish that book before Saturday, so I gave up on Jane and moved on to the other novel, which I will discuss later. When we met on Thursday night, I was relieved to hear that the others in the group also struggled to read this selection, that they were not swept along by Austen’s writing as so often happens with her later novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice. I will summarize the comments here, or as many of the comments as I can recall. One member said that reading this novel was like taking medicine – it was not really enjoyable, but she knews it was good for her. The same member said that the writing was superior, and Austen’s art of perception was amazing, the way she noticed and remarked on the smallest detail of characters’ behavior. Another member, who had never read Austen before, thought that it was too superficial, that she preferred novels that explore the psychological aspects of characters, such as The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison. She wondered how Austen would fare if she were writing today instead of 200 years ago. Our “resident expert” on Austen pointed out that the focus of Austen’s writing was more domestic, and more of a social commentary than a psychological exploration. I wondered if there was a modern-day equivalent to Austen today, but none of us could come up with any names. I had to agree with the astuteness of the observations and the superiority of the writing, even in the few pages I had read. I noted a passage that I thought rivalled her famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”. The passage in Northanger Abbey goes such: “But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way”. To the member for whom this novel was her first exposure to Austen, we all recommended that she try P&P, a much later, and more polished, novel, which is full of wit as well as her characteristic social commentary. We also discussed the “gothic” aspect of the novel, and those who read the whole book said that, when Catherine arrived at the Abbey, the writing changed so drastically that it was as if it was written by another writer. They wondered why Austen put in this part of the book, as none of her other novels are in the gothic style. I remember reading a bit of the introduction which said that this book was written primarily in response to the gothic novels that were all the rage at that time, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Radcliffe. According to the blurb on the back of my edition of the book, “Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey gently satirized this class of fiction and gave us a delightful heroine in consequence…” One member commented on the juxtaposition of characters with opposite characteristics that she thought was done intentionally to show the reader both sides of a person, such as one set of siblings who are superficial and selfish, alongside another set who are honest and true. She pointed out that, at some period in art history, this technique was also used, for example, to show the front and back of a body. What else… I can’t really remember any other specific comments, but I will admit that after this discussion, I decided most definitely to finish the book, maybe even this afternoon. I really should read more Jane Austen, as so far my reading experience is limited to P&P, Persuasion (many years ago), and now this novel. I have never read Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park or Emma. Hmmm… maybe a personal reading project? I’ll revisit this idea in the summer.
The other book club book I had to read this week was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. In case you don’t know what this bestselling novel is about, it tells the story, through a series of letters, of a writer in London who, shortly after the end of WWII, is contacted by a resident of the island of Guernsey, requesting information about Charles Lamb. Dawsey Adams got Juliet Ashton’s name and address from the inside cover of a book she once had that somehow made its way to a second-hand bookstore on the island. Thus a friendship and correspondence is struck, one that sees Juliet through a series of life-changing events and gives her an idea for her next book. The cast of characters is lengthy and eccentric, the information revealed about the German Occupation of the island often heart-wrenching, yet often also surprisingly moving, and the interconnected stories engaging. This book was a real “feel-good” novel, one that I had a hard time putting down. Yet I found it altogether too sweet and nice, which I had long suspected and had also been warned about by another reader, whose response was similar. I can see why it would appeal to readers, and will admit that, while I do not normally enjoy books that use letters to make up a significant portion of the text, this book, consisting entirely of letters, was compelling for me. I think my problem with this book is that it took a serious topic, German Occupation of the island during WWII, and offered it up in a romantic and amusing way, sort of like German Occupation in WWII “Light”. I liken my response to this novel to my response to The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which I felt offered up 1960s American Racism “Light”. Considering that both of these books were bestsellers and that many thousands of readers loved them, my responses are clearly not those of the majority. As it happens, the meeting on Saturday had to be postponed until next weekend due to illness (not mine), so I can't offer the comments made during the discussion here.
So what to read next… well, Jane Austen for this afternoon, then possibly a mystery I picked up at the library yesterday, about which I know nothing except that the author is Canadian: Brenda Chapman’s book, In Winter’s Grip (the title is appropriate for the extremely cold weather we’ve been experiencing these past few months!)
Bye for now…
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