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Friendship by the book

When six friends gather to discuss Jane Austen's novels, they never suspect their own lives will be remade

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I'm instinctively wary of genetic engineering, but Karen Fowler may have produced a literary equivalent of the elusive Super Tomato. "The Jane Austen Book Club" is modern chick lit spliced with genes from 19th-century romantic comedy. In fact, Fowler has so craftily designed this new novel to appeal to smart, middle-aged, book-buying women that one regards its demographic precision cynically. I'm sorry to report that it's delightful.

Her leisurely story revolves around the monthly meetings of six people - five women and one man - who gather to discuss Jane Austen's domestic romances. You don't have to know Austen's work to enjoy it, but if you've read them, you'll catch all kinds of witty parallels with the lives of these modern fans.

I wouldn't normally recommend this, but start with the appendix. Fowler's breezy summary of Austen's novels at the back is a good refresher for anyone who finds the details of "Mansfield Park" blurring with "Northanger Abbey."

And there are 20 irresistible pages of quotations about Austen's work from critics and authors over the past 200 years, including some wry comments by Austen herself. Writing about "Emma," for instance, she notes that her old friend Mr. Fowle "read only the first & last Chapters, because he had heard it was not interesting." Mark Twain fumes, "Every time I read 'Pride & Prejudice' I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone." An early 20th-century critic observes that "the reputation of Jane Austen is surrounded by cohorts of defenders who are ready to do murder for their sacred cause. They are nearly all fanatics."

Not all the members of the Jane Austen Book Club in this novel are equally fanatic, but they're all equally engaging:

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