It’s not about the plots, I wanted to cry out. It’s about the subtle commentary of the narrative perspective, the cutting inflections, the linguistic smirks! It’s about those twists of the satiric knife that you can read right past unless you’re really attentive — it’s about the ostensibly innocent reporting of dialogue that nonetheless directs how we interpret that dialogue through the seamlessly clever framing. All of this I wanted to say, and so much more.
“Su voz.” In Spanish, this was all that came out. “Her voice.”
(from All Roads Lead to Austen, page 15 in the uncorrected advance copy; finished version may be different)
Amy Elizabeth Smith, a college writing and literature professor in California, embarked on a yearlong journey to Central and South America to immerse herself in the culture and host Jane Austen book clubs to see how Austen’s works translated into Spanish and whether the people would identify with her characters…and even if they threatened bodily harm to certain characters that typically get Smith’s students’ blood boiling. In All Roads Lead to Austen, Smith chronicles her trip, including the book clubs, excessive book shopping, the new friends she made, episodes of loneliness, cultural misunderstandings, and even her bouts with tropical disease.
Smith reads Pride and Prejudice in Guatamala and Ecuador, Sense and Sensibility in Mexico and Chile, and Emma in Paraguay and Argentina and recounts in much detail the discussions of each book group. The members of each group were so diverse — ranging from working-class to academics and including both men and women of all ages — so it was especially interesting to see how they approached Austen, whether they focused on her characters, her writing, or the society her characters inhabited and whether the discussion would turn to their personal connections to the stories. Some of the groups focused on Austen’s portrayal of parenting, some on values or the characters’ lack of employment, and others explained connections between the novels and the race and class disparities they see even today. It was equally interesting to read their reactions to the popularity of Austen in other countries and their thoughts on the numerous sequels and spin-off books.
But All Roads Lead to Austen isn’t just about the Austen book groups. Smith also details her relationship with a taxi driver in Puerto Vallarta named Diego, and readers have to wait until the end to find out if he turns out to be her Mr. Darcy. Her relationship with her mother, who worries about her traveling to exotic lands that are not always safe, is a common theme, as is her quest to read the best-known authors and books in each of the countries she visits.
I’m not big on memoirs, but I really enjoyed this one — and not just because of the Jane Austen connection. Smith’s narrative voice is so personable that it’s almost like traveling with a friend (who isn’t afraid to fess up to having a bad attitude at times or making snap judgments of people despite what she’s learned from Austen’s novels). I know so little about the countries she visited, so I just ate up all the historical tidbits and loved seeing how she interacted with the people and adapted with each move. Because you get to know Smith and become invested in her travels and her Austen project, you can’t help but admire her courage in traveling alone and meeting new people, and you enjoy watching her and her relationships evolve from country to country.
All Roads Lead to Austen is perfect for readers who love Jane Austen, travel memoirs, and/or book club discussions. I finished the book wishing I was a more adventurous person, with the money to travel so extensively, of course. What an awesome experience it would be to spend time in different countries and experience difficult cultures, learning to speak the language and sharing a love of books.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.