I've been in a bit of a funk since reading All Roads Lead to Austen, though I couldn't explain why (or write a proper review) until now, several months later. The reason is simple, though: this is a book written for people who love books. Not just Jane Austen, though her novels are the lens through which the author examines the relevance of literature.
This book was so much fun. I walked away wanting to reread the collected works of Jane Austen but also feeling slightly depressed.
Former lit majors are obvious in the little things: an inability to sit through a movie without deconstructing, unconsciously dissecting and reassembling plots so that the ending comes as no surprise, developing issues with casual conversation lest it lapse into literary analysis. I've spent the last few months unable to articulate why I'm feeling socially isolated, but that's it: I no longer know anyone who will speak to me using the language of literature. Most of my friends don't read, and those who do just don't want to hear about James Joyce, Jane Austen, or T. S. Eliot. I have put my boyfriend to sleep at 2 am because I half-consciously tried to explain Prufrock.
The conversations I had in college tended to circumnavigate through Fitzgerald and Melville, were dismissed as Hemingwayesque, segwayed through sonnets. All of my points of reference are rendered moot in an age of Facebook and SparkNotes. It is for this reason that I envy this author: she regularly engages throughout this book in the kind of academic and multicultural criticism I can only dream of seeing again. I have heard the mermaids singing, but I do not think they will sing to me.
These are the kind of conversations that occur throughout All Roads Lead to Austen. People who have read books participate in book discussions, make some connections and dismiss others, and eventually each group comes down to whether or not what they have read relates to their lives, their countries. The discussions are sometimes fascinating and poignant, and other times silly and rife with absurdity.
Amy Elizabeth Smith, having read Reading Lolita in Tehran, obtained a university grant to spend a year in Central and South America, hosting book groups and the occasional lecture on Jane Austen's works. The book groups ranged from academic to entirely informal, and she tried to read Austen's three "great" works (Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility) in two countries apiece.
Smith found that the books were generally considered relevant in myriad ways, and often the reasons for their relevance surprised her. I walked into reading this book with a fear of encountering an irritating level of cultural superiority: not a fan of the "white lady discovers other cultures that seem to exist for the purpose of enlightening her" subset of travelogue. Instead, Smith acknowledges her cultural presumptions (many she did not realize existed until presented with proof of the opposite), explains why they are embarrassing assumptions to make, and tries to integrate this alternative perspective into the next conversation.
That constant challenging of cultural expectations vs. cultural reality was well done, but the discussion groups made the book worthwhile. Not only in the ways the groups examined Austen, but in the way that the dialogue progressed. There are palpable differences between an academic group in Guatemala vs. the informal group in Mexico in which 2/3 of the book club did not manage to finish Sense and Sensibility. Smith compares and contrasts the cultural differences between the analyses, and in the process attempts to navigate the previously unfamiliar territory of South America. Although All Roads Lead to Austen truly shines during these discussions, the added bits of Smith's travels (contracting dengue, being perplexed at the shelving styles of Argentinian bookstores, misconstruing romantic proposals from older Latin men) helped to color the story further and enmesh the reader into the tale.
All in all, this was a colorful, interesting book that clearly made me think long after I'd put it down.