Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
February 23, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

Why is it so hard for the besotted reader to accept that, often, a novelist’s ability to illuminate fictional characters is directly proportional to the blandness of said novelist’s own life? One cannot begrudge Austen fanatics for wanting to know more about the woman who anatomized British society with such acuity, but sad to say, there just isn’t much to work with here: Austen never lived apart from her family, who fiercely guarded her privacy. Shields, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries, makes a mighty and always respectful effort to animate Austen’s era, the latest addition to the admirable Penguin Lives series, but in the end, we are reminded that often the best way to honor an author is not to delve into her character, but into those that she has created. C+

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