Fiction, Historical

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to completely change ones reading habits, right? Well, I guess we really wouldn’t know. Either way, I’m ready way more historical fiction in the last week than I’ve read in years. However, fun fact, historical fiction was what really got me into reading way back in the third grade when I was introduced to the American Girl books. I’m pretty sure there’s a clear line from my love of colonial Felicity and my Bachelor’s degree in early American history…

Synopsis

From the Publisher Marketing:
Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

Review

I first started reading The Jane Austen Society back in February when I did nothing more than “blurb read” it – I read the first three chapters, enough to be able to write a concise but detailed blurb about it for submission to the Indie Next List and to the publisher, satisfying the unofficial requirement of my job as a bookseller. And in February, I didn’t really think too much more of it – it struck me as just another Austen story, nothing setting it apart, save the personal letter from the author, which is, admittedly, really cool.

But as my knee injury dragged on and self-isolating began and the bookstore closed (I’m back now, yay!), I was drawing further and further away from books that may have even remotely held my interest. I’ve wasn’t too inclined to finish it, and it was fiction – I’ve spent the last three years reading almost exclusively nonfiction. But then I needed a book to review for today, so I looked back at the post I did for May new releases and wondered what book I would want to read enough of for a full review. Since last weekend I powered through Lovely War in 36 hours, I figured I might want to take a chance on another historical fiction title.

I restarted The Jane Austen Society around 2pm yesterday and was finished by 9:30pm. I legitimately cannot recall a time where I read a non-graphic novel in one day while at home (I do it on vacation sitting on the beach all the time.) Right now, historical fiction calls to me (sung in my head in Moana’s voice) and I’ve now added a lot of Austen and Jane-related books to my reading list, including reading Northanger Abbey and finishing up The Austen Years, a memoir due in July. Laura is the true Austen devotee in the family while my interest has always been more passive.

Yes, I’ve watched all the movies and adaptations with her and can wax eloquent about the wonderfulness of Lizzie Bennet and the infuriating aspects of Emma’s personality with the best, but admittedly, Pride and Prejudice is the only one of Austen’s novels I’ve read in it’s entirety (I love the graphic novel adaptation of Northanger Abbey though it’s unfortunately out of print.) So I always wonder if I’m some sort of fake reviewing books about Austen, I feel woefully unqualified, comparatively speaking. And I don’t have a Darcy obsession, so I felt that ruled me out of most of the unofficial diehard fan clubs I stumbled across over the years.

But The Jane Austen Society is something truly special. Will being an Austenite enhance the enjoyment of reading it? Absolutely. But even a passing knowledge of England’s greatest novelist (I’ve read Dickens and Chaucer and will stand by this statement) will suffice in ensuring decent comprehension of the numerous references to her many works peppered throughout.

I’ve read a quite a few debuts in my days as a bookseller, though not many before. I was very much the type of reader who needed books to be vetted by others before I spent my time reading them and I’m very glad this is not the case any more. The Jane Austen Society, having now finished it, is a book that I sped through and wished I had read more slowly so that I could have savored the reading experience more.

Every sentence, every turn of phrase, every allusion, every piece of dialog, is so deliberate and exact – nothing is written without purpose. Each and every character is so perfectly crafted with such compassion and empathy, one had me bawling within 100 pages, I can’t remember the last time I got so attached to a cast of characters so quickly. Those most familiar with the novels will be able to draw some early connections between Natalie’s newcomers and Jane’s iconic characters, but Natalie’s are fully and completely their own.

As I read, I felt I was walking around Chawton, immersing myself in the world of her colorful inhabitants, surprised by how they handled certain situations, while simultaneously feeling like they were behaving exactly as they should. The plot is intricate and beautifully woven, written by the hand of the master storyteller – I continually had to pinch myself that this is a debut novel.

Natalie Jenner has a background in many areas (as do I), but her history as a bookseller shines through so brightly in her writing. As booksellers we read hundreds if not thousands of books every year from many publishers. We know that of those books, few truly hold our attention and even fewer are ones that we want to sit back and read cover to cover, savoring each and every word on each and every page. Natalie’s debut is a bookseller’s dream – the perfect gift for a loved one, a great book for a summer afternoon read, a book that makes you feel all the feels, a contemporary Jane Austen.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent bookstore, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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