William Deresiewicz Taught Me Everything I Know About Jane Austen
How can someone love and hate a book all at the same time?
William Deresiewicz's book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter managed to have me flip flopping back and forth between loving it and hating it. Alright... "love and hate" are probably strong words to use... but I did find myself really enjoying parts of the book, and other parts just left me confused and wishing for some Cliff Notes.
I suppose I should start by disclosing that I am one of those people who made it through school (high school, college, and graduate school) without ever having been given a Jane Austen novel as an assignment. Because it wasn't assigned I never felt the urge to pick up any of her novels. I honestly just never found myself drawn to Austen.
William Deresiewicz, on the other hand, read the entire works of Jane Austen during school (during college, graduate school, and through his dissertation). He read them and he incorporated them into his life. It seems to me he almost obsessed over each novel. In his book, A Jane Austen Education, Deresiewicz tells you exactly how each of 6 novels related to and affected his life. Each and every novel had a direct impact on his thoughts on how to live... how to be. Each novel gave him what seemed to be a moment of "Aha! I see exactly what Austen is telling me! And it just happens to relate to exactly what I'm going through!"
Deresiewicz goes through each novel (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility) and explains what he has learned from Jane Austen's stories and characters. From learning that the little everyday things matter, to the importance of trying to be a good person, to what true friends are and how to truly fall in love... he learned it all from Jane Austen.
I enjoyed his writing when it was about himself. I found that the author had an interesting life and that his way of telling his own stories drew me in. I wanted to know more about him. I was curious to know what would happen as he lived his life.
But, when he switched from writing about himself to writing more of a literary review of Austen's novels, I found myself bored and sometimes quite confused. In some chapters he would quickly switch between his life and the characters' lives in the novels. He would introduce the characters and briefly explain parts of the stories. He would also throw in information about Jane Austen's life. He would explain how certain characters were based on Jane Austen herself in some way, or based on her family members. A lot of the time Austen would actually give her characters the same names (or similar names) as people in her family. At times I had trouble keeping up with who he was talking about (himself, fictional characters, or Jane Austen). There were multiple times I found myself finishing a page and had to think "wait a minute... was that just about Jane Austen's relationship... or the character in the novel?" and I would have to go back and read it all again. In one page he might quickly switch between himself, the novel, Jane Austen, and then back to himself. It made me a little dizzy trying to keep it all straight sometimes.
Perhaps if you've read the novels of Jane Austen you wouldn't find yourself as confused as I did at times. Or, maybe you would. Perhaps you would find yourself agreeing with the author whole-heartedly. Or, you would find yourself wanting to argue that you completely disagree with his conclusions. I'm curious to see what fans of Jane Austen have to say about what William Deresiewicz learned and shared.
As I said, I haven't read Austen. While I am glad to have learned more about her writing and influence, this book didn't make me long to become a well-read fan.