Playing Nice: The Jane Austen Book Club, by Sarah Brinks
Thank you for reading “Playing Nice,” a series of articles that examines group dynamics in film.
**This article will contain spoilers. I strongly recommend you watch the film first and then read the article if you care about spoilers.** This week, I thought I would try out a new genre for this article: Romance. The Jane Austen Book Club is about a group of women of varying ages and life stages who form a book club where they will read one of Jane Austen’s novels each month. The one exception is a young man named Grigg. Grigg has never read Austen and he is the only man in the group. The book club is made up of dog-breeder Jocelyn (Maria Bello), unhappily married French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), librarian and mother Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), Sylvia’s lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), eccentric hippie Bernadette (Kathy Baker), and IT support worker Grigg (Hugh Dancy). The club is first formed when Jocelyn’s favorite dog dies. Then Sylvia’s husband leaves her for another woman and Prudie’s husband refuses to take her to Paris. As the book club progresses through the novels and everyone’s lives become more complicated and intertwined emotions run high.
The Jane Austen Book Club does not start off as a group close friends. Jocelyn, Sylvia, and Bernadette are all friends but the addition of Prudie, Grigg, and Allegra really changes the dynamic of the group. Grigg is the most challenging for most of the group, he has never read Austen before and so his perspective is completely different from the rest of the groups. Many of the women have grown up reading Austen feel a strong kinship to her and her characters and sometimes over-romanticize her stories. Grigg does not have this baggage coming in and is coming from a male perspective so his opinions are not often received well. The most over the top is when he tries to compare Fanny Price and Edmund in Mansfield Park to Luke and Leia in Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. Allegra as the youngest and has more sympathy for the characters dealing with difficult parents since she just moved back in with her mom after her parents divorced. Prudie is also dealing with mother issues but also sees the virtue in following your heart not your head as she considers having an affair.
While the romance plot with Grigg and Jocelyn is a big part of the film, the relationships between the women are much more interesting and will be the focus on this article. Sylvia and Allegra are mother and daughter and when Daniel leaves Sylvia for another woman Allegra decides to move back in with her mother to support her emotionally. Allegra encourages her mom to move from grief to anger and encourages her to join her gym and get out. Sylvia certainly takes her time to mourn her marriage and is a mess for a while, but around the time they read Northanger Abbey she manages to pick herself up and reinvents her look and her attitude. When Daniel shows up the house to “mow the lawn and do maintenance on the house” she stands up for herself telling Daniel he cannot just show up at the house. In the end of the film they get back together but Sylvia is a better, more whole person as a result of their divorce. Allegra is young and eager to love, but is also hot tempered and quick to dismiss people. To her credit she is also fiercely loyal. She stays in the book club to support her mom but she has a lot of issues with other people’s interpretation of the books, especially Prudie. Allegra falls in and out of love a few times over the six months, but the book club helps her stay connected to her mom.
Prudie has a big decision to make in the film. She is unhappy in her marriage and there is a young handsome student at the high school where she teaches French who starts flirting with her. She is also dealing with her hippy, stoner mom who comes to visit and makes things even more difficult. After being raised by her mother in “hippie communes” Prudie has removed herself as much as she can from that lifestyle. She reaches a point where she can’t take her mother anymore. She kicks her out and sends her back home. Not long after this her mother dies in a car accident and Prudie has to deal with her conflicted feelings about her mother. She takes those feelings out on her husband when he talks to a beautiful woman at the funeral who used to pick on Prudie in high school. She cannot move past her difficult childhood while she also trying to mourn her mother. Dean, Prudie’s husband, struggles to see her perspective and appears to bury himself in work in order to not deal with their marital troubles. Ultimately she makes the choice not to have the affair with her student. She instead goes home and reconnects with her husband by reading Persuasion with him.
The Grigg/Jocelyn/Sylvia plot takes up a great deal of the film but it is clear from the beginning that Grigg and Jocelyn will end up together. They meet at a hotel where Jocelyn is attending a dog breeding conference and Grigg is attending a science fiction convention. Jocelyn invites him to join the book club as a distraction for Sylvia as she deals with her divorce. From the beginning Grigg only has eyes for Jocelyn and she eventually realizes that she has feelings for him too.
Jocelyn says in the film, “Reading Jane Austen is a mine field,” and in a lot of ways it is. Austen writes about a lot of relatable relationships that stir up a lot of conflicting feelings for people. While The Jane Austen Book Club is not a movie that is going to change your life it does have some good examples of complex, female relationships. Next time you read Austen or go to book club ask yourself if you will play nice.