Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter by William Deresiewicz

As an engineering student, I chose to take “literary expressions” as a thematic in my degree and took a variety of literature courses while at Michigan Technological University. It was not a hardship for me as I am a strange person that loves being an engineer, and also harbors secret dreams of becoming an English professor. I was fortunate to take one class called “The British Novel” with a delightful professor, Dr. Barry Pegg. He picked great novels and also had a British accent, which only enhanced the entire experience. It was also the first and only time in my high school, college, or graduate school experience that I was able to read an Austen novel with a class and discuss it. We read Pride and Prejudice. While it was not my first time reading the novel, Dr. Pegg managed to get me to think about the novel in an entirely different way than I had ever thought about it before. I loved the new insights and discussing it with a class.

What does this have to do with A Jane Austen Education? A Jane Austen Education is a superb new book by William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz was an English Professor at Yale University and I felt that like Dr. Pegg, Deresiewicz was able to give me new insight into all of Austen novels in a delightful and enjoyable way.

A Jane Austen Education is part memoir and part literary criticism of all six of Jane Austen’s novels. Deresiewicz takes us on his journey of discovering Austen, her novels, and the part they played in enhancing his own life.

As a graduate student, Deresiewicz prided himself on his heavy “manly” reading. When he was forced to read an Austen novel (Emma) for one of his courses, he was not enthused. Once he started reading the book, he at first thought his worst fears had been realized. “The story seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village. No grand events, no great issues, and inexplicably for a writer of romance novels, not even any passion.”

As Deresiewicz continued to read Emma, he finally had an epiphany and understood the novel. “Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t’ think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. . . Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter – and much wiser – than I could ever have imagined.”

As Deresiewicz learned while reading Emma, “To pay attention to ‘minute particulars’ is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes.” I loved this sentence. It is so true and such a lovely sentence in itself.

I loved the way this book was written. The entire tone of the book, the breaking down of Austen’s novels in a fun way that was at one with the author’s life and understanding of Austen, was very interesting and a good read. I also loved how Deresiewicz would go through the plot of the novel and his initial reactions, and then his deeper thought process. While it was a great book to think further about Austen’s novels, it was not a dry read.

Although this book does not seem like a page turner, I admit that I had a hard time putting it down and looked forward to every opportunity to return to reading it. Deresiewicz did a great job of writing about himself, I enjoyed and commiserated with his graduate school experiences and the hard time he had finding true love. I also enjoyed reading about his snobbishness in realizing there is a world outside of New York City. It gave me a few good chuckles trying to imagine his friend’s reactions to a place like rural Kewaunee, Wisconsin.

I must also say that this book had the perfect ending. I won’t give it away, but it gave me a happy laugh at the very end when I closed the book. I love having a reading experience like that!

Overall, if you are a lover of Jane Austen and her novels, or if you are someone that wonders what the fuss is about Jane Austen, I highly recommend this book. You will not be disappointed. Now I need to somehow take what I learned from this book and convince my husband to give Jane Austen a chance!

I reviewed this book as part of the TLC Book Tours. For more reviews of this novel, please check out other stops on the tour at this link.

Book Source: Review Copy from Penguin Books. Thank-you!


  1. I'm having problems with blogger this morning so please forgive the odd spacing issues. I loved this book!!

  2. This is a fabulous review. You gave me great insight not only as to why you liked the book, but as to why this would be a good read for others too, including me.
    This book sounds like one I should have on the bookshelves within my home not only for me, but for my girls as they start to read Jane Austen books.

    Let me ask, does the set-up for this book lend itself easily for reading if I have not read all the Austen books? Can I a pick and choose areas within this book to read as they correlate to the different Austen books?

  3. Great comment! I would say yes. While the story does have a narrative that does progress throughout the novel about the author, the book is divided into six sections, one for each book and the lesson learned.

  4. Great review, Laura, as usual.I can't wait to read this book myself. A male perspective of Jane Austen and her world is something so rare that I can't miss it!

  5. I think great writing can raise the status of the "ordinary", which Austen certainly achieves. Also, she was writing at a time when women were limited in numerous ways, and not "allowed" to have the adventures that men took for granted. She wrote about her universe, with skill and brilliance.

    Excellent review, Laura, of a book I'd most likely enjoy as much as you did!

  6. I'm fascinated that you are a science person and a literature lover too - I love that! And I'm glad to see that this book met your expectations. It certainly is a unique take on Austen!

    Thanks for being on the tour. :)

  7. Great review! I definitely want to read this!

  8. Wonderful review :)
    I want to recommend this book to someone I know that coordinates activites for a Jane Austen society where I live. It sounds perfect for the members.

    I find it so interesting that you have the dual engineering/English lit interest; my daughter is so science-oriented, but she has an equally strong musical side.

    I see that you are currently listening to The Disappearing Spoon - hope you are enjoying it!

  9. This book sounds perfect for someone I know that is part of a Jane Austen society in our area. I am definitely going to recommend it to her - thanks!