I notice that I have been reading more than my usual share of novels this summer, and finding them more than usually pleasant reading. The latest is Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I'll confess I would likely not have picked it out from the bookstore shelves, had I not bumped into the author at a reading a couple of months ago. I'm glad I did, because her book reminded me of the gentle pleasures of reading Jane Austen, of the English countryside and the now somewhat faded elegance of Bath, and of the polite eccentricities of the English character. It also put me in mind, throughout, of a valuable Buddhist teaching.
Rigler's conceit is an amusing one. Our Jane Austen addict, Courtney Stone, a twenty-first century, post-feminist, Los Angeles-based protagonist-- she has her own MySpace website--wakes up one day to find herself inhabiting the mind and body of "Jane Mansfield" in Austen's early nineteenth century England. The ensuing romp through the exquisite agonies and politenesses of that era shed light not only on the nostalgic view of a life more simply defined by a rigorous social code--but also on its too readily forgotten hazards: its awful sanitary conditions no less than its relegation of women to the property of males. Rigler's Courtney observes it all with the cynical eye of a "liberated"--and recently jilted--woman who obsesses not only about her beloved Jane Austen but also about such things as cleanliness and creature comforts of the kind distinctly unavailable in Austen's day.
And then there's "love"--so differently defined and practiced in the two eras that clash together in this book. For Courtney, it's about sexual politics, sexual freedom, the freedom to choose partners, it's about her womanhood, her individuality, her strength--and weakness. And she suffers. For "Jane", it's about financial security and social convention, family, propriety and property. "Love" as we understand it in our century--something to be fallen into--has hardly entered into the social vocabulary of Jane's time, it's there only as a glimmer of romanticism and the freedoms that aesethtic movement had begun to claim. It's there, in Jane's heart, as a hope almost beyond hope to be fulfilled. Sex, so subtly sublimated in Jane Austen's world into the delicate, precise dance of language and social mores, is an omnipresent but forbidden topic, a delicious undertow fraught with fears and inhibitions.
Rigler, herself clearly a Jane Austen addict, has a sure feel for these matters in both "Jane's" world and Courtney's. Venturing into the risky territory of nineteenth century English as a contemporary American whose native language is the vernacular of twenty-first century California, she proves sure-footed amongst the booby-traps--and as a native English English speaker, I'm sensitive to the potential lapses. Her plotting, too, is nicely handled: the reader's attention is engaged by the story line throughout, and the ending--long anticipated, because we're kept wondering how our Courtney is ever going to escape her predicament--is astutely satisfying: it serves at once to resolve and deepen the mystery of Courtney's time-warp, and leaves the reader empowered to speculate on its meaning.
For those who fall into the trap of dismissing Jane Austen's novels as romantic fluff, and might be tempted to do the same with Rigler's, it should be added that Courtney takes her identity crisis seriously even as she seems to simultaneously enjoy the ride and worry about the return trip to her "real self." Along the way, this material girl is required to re-evaluate her own sense of self, and is confronted constantly with that great teaching of Buddhism I mentioned earlier: the "other" mind-body she inhabits requires her to actually experience the conundrum of not-self, "this is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am." And thus confronted, she sheds some of her narcissism along the way and learns the value of compassion for those who share the journey with her.
A good read, then. I learn from an email from Laurie, received coincidentally this very morning--that she has reached #15 on the LA Times bestseller list for fiction. Here's hoping, for her, for a #1 spot soon!