>> Friday, February 14, 2014
TITLE: All Roads Lead To Austen: A Yearlong Journey With Jane
AUTHOR: Amy Elizabeth Smith
SETTING: Contemporary, several Latin American countries
TYPE: Non fiction
WHERE DO BOOKS TAKE YOU?
With a suitcase full of Jane Austen novels en español, Amy Elizabeth Smith set off on a yearlong Latin American adventure: a traveling book club with Jane. In six unique, unforgettable countries, she gathered book-loving new friends— taxi drivers and teachers, poets and politicians— to read Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.
Whether sharing rooster beer with Guatemalans, joining the crowd at a Mexican boxing match, feeding a horde of tame iguanas with Ecuadorean children, or tangling with argumentative booksellers in Argentina, Amy came to learn what Austen knew all along: that we're not always speaking the same language— even when we're speaking the same language.
But with true Austen instinct, she could recognize when, unexpectedly, she'd found her own Señor Darcy.
All Roads Lead to Austen celebrates the best of what we love about books and revels in the pleasure of sharing a good book— with good friends.
I knew I had to read this book as soon as I read a review of it on Mean Fat Old Bat's blog. A Literature professor travelling around Latin America, doing book club discussions of Jane Austen books with locals? This South American Jane Austen lover was so there!
I expected to at least like it, but it was much, much better than that. I absolutely loved it. There are basically three more or less distinct aspects to it, the book clubs, the 'travelogue' and the personal stuff, and all three were beautifully done.
The book clubs were what I originally picked up the book for. In them, Smith leads discussions on Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. I was impressed by how well that was integrated into the book. I thought this could be boring after the second time a particular book was discussed, but I found it fascinating. The editing is absolutely perfect. It's a great combination of verbatim and reporting on the themes coming out of discussions. It was seamless, and I never got the feeling I was missing anything.
The discussions were illuminating, both regarding the books themselves and the context in which they were being analysed. I especially loved that there were no stereotypical “Latin American” views. Rather, it was a great illustration of how different people will look at the book in different ways. That's the key thing: different people, not different nationalities. The biggest differences seemed to come out of different personal circumstances, not national origin. For instance, I loved how the group that was composed mostly of writers focused so much on the writing, things like pacing and how characters were constructed, while another group who were language teachers looked at that, while ‘non professionals’ were much more likely to draw parallels between the story and their lives.
There’s also the travelogue element, as Smith visits 6 different countries. We get a fair bit of setting and Smith's activities as she settles in and sets up the book clubs, with varying degrees of local help. And of course, there are Smith’s views on the places she goes to and the people she meets. I really enjoyed that. She doesn't like everyone she meets, but while she makes it clear, she isn't mean about it.
On a bit of a side note, you know that someone really is talking to local Latin Americans when she reports on the endless jokes about Argentinians. The only other place I remember seeing this is in a book by Elizabeth Peters, The Night of the Four Hundred Rabbits. It really is ubiquitous over there, and there really are some bad feelings behind the jokes. My own (Montevideo) accent sounds almost exactly like a Buenos Aires one (I suspect only we can tell the difference), and I've often experienced the complete change in attitude towards me by other Latin Americans when I say that no, I'm not Argentinian, as they’d assumed.
Anyway, back to the book, I think what makes the travelogue aspect so good was that Smith seems to travel with a truly open mind, recognising that she will inevitably have prejudices (some she might even not know she had), but being willing to let them go when they’re proved wrong. I particularly liked her awareness of her own privilege. Obviously, she’s very privileged in comparison to some (but not all!) of the people she meets, sometimes in ways she’s not even aware of (for instance, the section where she realises, with much chagrin, that people with kids and who have to work many hours a day might have difficulty finding the time to read a stonking long book, unlike a single university professor. I totally would have fallen into the same trap). She recognises this privilege, just as she recognises her prejudices, and seeks to keep them from intruding in her relationships with the people she meets.
But best of all is that I never got the feeling that the book was ABOUT a privileged American’s personal discovery ‘journey’. What I mean is, it’s not about how some Latin Americans change how an American feels about them. They’re there in their own right, not defined by how they affect Smith. It’s a travelogue and it’s about Austen's books and how people in very different circumstances to those in which Austen wrote them can relate to them. Smith as the narrator has a role, but she doesn't overshadow the rest.
That said, I really liked the personal stuff we did get. At one point Smith gets ill, and given that I went through a similar situation last year (medical issues, not knowing what was wrong, away from my family) I could certainly sympathise. But there are positives, too, like a really lovely romance. I don’t want to say more to spoil it, but I will only say that got to the end with a big smile on my face and loved the way Smith made her final decision using Austen, appropriately enough!
A lovely, lovely book. Thanks Marilyn for helping me find it!
MY GRADE: An A-.