They say life imitates art; what they never tell you is that you don't get to choose the art. So it is for a group of Sacramento residents in Robin Swicord's film The Jane Austen Book Club, adapted for the screen from Karen Joy Fowler's novel. The Jane Austen Book Club (both film and entity) begins as a group of friends try to distract themselves from various personal crises: Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is getting over the death of one of her prized show dogs; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has had her lengthy marriage implode on her unexpectedly. The older, oft-married Bernadette (Kathy Baker) comes up with the idea of a book club to get Jocelyn and Sylvia out of their funks. Sylvia's daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace) joins out of solidarity; Jocelyn recruits high-tech worker Grigg (Hugh Dancy) for the club in the hope that sparks will fly between him and Sylvia; Bernadette reaches out to the bookish, unhappy Prudie (Emily Blunt) as a fresh voice for the club's conversations.
At first, the club looks to Jane Austen because her bygone age of simplicity and civility seems like a nice break from the indignities of modern life; Swicord's title sequence shows nothing but traffic jams, mercurial vending machines, blaring stereos and more. But soon, the group finds that when you get past the petticoats and starched collars and period trappings, Austen's central concerns -- relations between men and women, within families, and within ourselves -- are all too relevant to their lives. Jocelyn, at one point realizing that the plot of the club's current novel might resonate too fiercely for the despondent Sylvia mutters offhand that "Reading Jane Austen is a freaking minefield. ..."