It is a truth universally acknowledged that five women and a middle-aged guy who get together to discuss Jane Austen don't make the sexiest subject for a novel. In fact, it's tough to imagine a frumpier conceit (or title) than The Jane Austen Book Club. Yet Karen Joy Fowler's new novel turns out to be sharp and sly, an astringent, witty, and thoroughly delightful comedy of contemporary manners.
Jocelyn, who breeds Rhodesian ridgebacks in California's Central Valley, starts the ''all-Jane Austen-all-the-time'' club to help her friend Sylvia out of a funk. Daniel, Sylvia's husband of 32 years, has just left her for another woman. But this is no angry matron-power tract: Daniel has his reasons, as does everyone else in this wise and generous book. The club sits around drinking margaritas, making desultory, often fatuous conversation about Austen, and into these light, meandering chats Fowler weaves smart and funny backstories.
Sylvia's daughter, Allegra, for instance, has joined only to support her mother (''If she'd worked in a bookstore, Allegra would have shelved Austen in the horror section''). A gorgeous, self-absorbed, self-dramatizing lesbian, Allegra ''sometimes felt things so deeply you ended up consoling her even when the tragedy was entirely your own.'' She's recently broken up with a struggling writer named Corinne because, to Allegra's disgust, Corinne has been furtively appropriating Allegra's anecdotes for her fiction. ''How dare Corinne write up Allegra's secret stories and send them off to magazines to be published? How dare Corinne write them so poorly that no one wished to take them?''
High school French teacher Prudie presents herself as a stiff, pretentious Francophile. So it's a relief when, in the third chapter, you meet the private, lusty, cranky Prudie, wilting in her classroom on a sweltering day, waiting for the bell to ring and daydreaming about sex. Though she's happily married, ''in her late twenties, suddenly, unnervingly, she found herself wishing to sleep with nearly every man she saw.''
Then there's 67-year-old Bernadette, who mends her glasses with big gobs of tape and has given up looking in mirrors (''I wish I'd thought of it years ago''). A gentle eccentric who repeats herself constantly -- ''sometimes this was annoying, but mostly it was restful'' -- Bernadette turns out to have had the wildest love life of all. And it's not over.
Grigg, a sci-fi fan in his 40s whose erotic inclinations remain shrouded until late in the narrative, rounds out the group. He sins by suggesting that Austen would have made a great sitcom writer.
The novel tracks the romantic escapades of these characters -- and concludes with a marriage, the classic Austen finale. Appropriately enough, a tongue-in-cheek appendix lists discussion questions for book groups tackling both Austen and ''The Jane Austen Book Club.'' Each character suggests topics. Prudie asks readers to consider which woman on ''Sex and the City'' her husband most resembles, while Allegra takes off on a typically strident and absurd tangent: ''In 'The Jane Austen Book Club,' I take two falls and visit two hospitals. Did you stop to wonder how a woman who supports herself making jewelry affords health insurance? Do you think we will ever have universal coverage in this country?''
You may want to go back and read Austen after you put down this book. More likely, you'll want to track down more Fowler. A-