Deresiewicz Leaves Me Hungry for Story
Last year, near the 27th anniversary of my birth, I decided that it was time I added a few “classic novels” to the “Books I’ve Read” list. I’d somehow managed to avoid such popular choices as Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and anything by Austen. The fact that I’d somehow avoided any sort of “Jane” until now seems to shock most people in my life, as most might classify me as a nostalgic-obsessed twenty-something female. Not only had I never set my eyes on an Austen novel, I’d also yet to view upon any film adaptation. A self-proclaimed pop-culture princess, I figured if I was to start anywhere with Miss Austen, it was to be with Pride and Prejudice -- after all, I had already formed my opinion on Mr. Darcy based on Colin Firth’s Oscar speech, a reading of Bridget Jones’s Diary my freshmen year of college, and a handful of other nods to this seemingly wonderful dreamboat. So onward I marched, with Pride and Prejudice in my hands, into the world of Austen.
Not long after finishing Pride and Prejudice, I was given the opportunity through the BlogHer Book Club to read and review William Deresiewicz's new book, A Jane Austen Education. My favorite books have always been autobiographies (I love true life stories from an “as it happened” point of view!), and after reading the description of Deresiewicz’s book, I was expecting to find just that. I was hoping for a true memoir of the author’s life and the impact Austen’s work had in his own growth of character.
The first mistake I may have made in reading A Jane Austen Education was beginning with little Jane Austen education myself. The fact that I had only just started my own relationship with Austen and knew nothing of her personal history led me to see the opening chapter of Deresiewicz’s book, discussing Austen’s novel Emma, as weak and frustrating. I struggled to make my way through the pages, noting that the storytelling of Deresiewicz’s own life was lackluster, while the critical analysis and reporting of Emma as a work was strong. More often I felt as if I was reading some sort of literary journal assigned by my professor, rather than a book I was once eager to dive into.
What the opening chapter did grant me was a list of beautifully worded, journal-worthy quotes leading me to reflect on my own writing. Notes on Austen’s work such as, “everyday words in their natural order -- a language that didn’t call attention to itself in any way, but just rolled along as easily as breathing,” and “her own way was to make art out of the very things that absorbed her attention in her own life,” left me ready to examine my own way of storytelling and analyzing my sentences in the same manner.
As chapters move on, discussing the characters of Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and my beloved Pride and Prejudice, the love William Deresiewicz has for Miss Austen is obvious. But for someone who has only just been introduced to her works, it seems more than a tad bit off-putting. Though I want to fall in love with her in the very same manner, I’m left feeling forced into the reader-author relationship at a pace in which I am not comfortable; the way one might refuse to love a song her best friend plays on repeat way too often, until years later when she hears the song alone and realizes just how perfectly the bass line drives the song home.
However, as chapters progress Deresiewicz’s story does manage to unravel. I am drawn to the true stories he recalls, descriptions of his relationships with the characters in his own life in parallel to the Austen novels. While the analysis and summaries of the novels are insightful, well-written and comprehensive beyond question, I find myself fighting through them, along with the historical reference points, hungry for more of the memoir hidden in between.
In the end, my recommendation can be summarized as this: read this book... after you read Austen. My opinion was formed in the very first pages and remained throughout the entire book, including the seemingly perfect final chapter; if you want to read any of Austen’s books spoiler-free, wait to read A Jane Austen Education until you’ve finished her complete works.