FOR THE 'INNER AUSTEN' IN EACH OF US

Jane Austen fans can be fervent--seeing in her novels everything anyone would need to know about love, family relationships, the nature of happiness and the importance of a fat bank account in selecting a mate. Count among them novelist Karen Joy Fowler, whose witty new best seller, "The Jane Austen Book Club," is the hot choice for book clubs around the country. Fowler, 54, fell for the author four decades ago and has reread the novels many times, always finding new meaning. "I'm astonished that whatever is my current obsession in my private life, suddenly Jane Austen seems to be about that," she says.

A couple of years ago, Austen gave Fowler the greatest gift a novelist can ask for: inspiration. She spotted a sign for a Jane Austen book club in a bookstore and briefly thought it was an ad for a new novel with that title, one that would be "exactly for me." When she realized her mistake, she decided to write the book she wanted so much to read. The plot revolves around six residents of California's Central Valley (where Fowler lives), who decide to read an Austen novel every month from spring to autumn. Fowler begins by observing that "each of us has an inner Austen" and proves her point by fleshing out the pasts and futures of her characters while making clever allusions to Austen. A familiarity with "Emma," "Pride and Prejudice" or "Sense and Sensibility" helps, but it's not essential because Fowler provides plot summaries.

On her book tour, Fowler says she constantly meets people whose book clubs are reading the novel. Not her own club, however. They're waiting until next year, "when it's out in paperback," she says. "It has been a pleasant surprise to hear that other book clubs have deeper pockets." Readers are also suggesting sequels about other writers, like Emily Dickinson. Just one problem: "Nobody would actually leave their house."

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