Books April 2013

Solving Jane Austen Puzzles

And new fiction by Elizabeth Strout. Two short book reviews.

What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved
John Mullan
Bloomsbury

“Of all great writers,” Virginia Woolf said about Austen, “she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” Mullan, agreeing that Austen’s genius is in the details, attempts to snare it by examining the interconnected minutiae her novels comprise. Addressing such juicy topics as “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?,” “How Much Money Is Enough?,” and “What Are the Right and Wrong Ways to Propose Marriage?,” Mullan explores the universe of the novels, explaining their historical context, Austen’s intentions, and her radical innovations in English fiction, including the introduction of “free indirect style”—the filtering of events through a character’s consciousness. Closely and authoritatively examining her texts and incorporating letters and biographical material, Mullan, a professor of English at University College London and a columnist on contemporary fiction for The Guardian, delivers a satisfying dose of learning in a beguiling and entertaining way. Substantial yet conversational, this is scholarship without pedantry, intended to broaden and deepen the understanding of Jane Austen for the general but careful reader. (And what fan of Austen is not a careful reader?) An Austen lover’s greatest wish is for more of her novels. This intimate guide to the world of her books is the next best thing.

The Burgess Boys
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

This deftly woven, complex story centers on the shifting dynamic among three siblings. Setting her story in Maine, where the siblings’ lives began, and New York, to which two have escaped, Strout draws into her narrative the points of view of several additional characters, including a wife, an ex-wife, and a member of the Somali community who has settled in the siblings’ hometown. As in her most celebrated and most emotionally powerful book, Olive Kitteridge, Strout comes at her subject from multiple angles, in this case exploring events and relationships that radiate from the principal three characters. But while all of these people are convincing, none feels as deeply inhabited nor leaps as vibrantly from the page as did the eponymous Olive Kitteridge. In fact, the mother and daughter who merely gossip about the Burgesses in the prologue best exemplify Strout’s great gift for capturing character. Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize an excellent book for not being stunning, but unreasonable expectations inevitably follow writing of the kind Strout has delivered.

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