LITERATURE

Austen Years: A Memoir in 5 Novels

Farrar. Jul. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780374107031. $28. LIT
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Memoirist Cohen (A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists) juxtaposes elements of her personal history with the life and works of English novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) to demonstrate the relevance of literary classics today. During a critical time in Cohen’s life, spanning her children’s births and her father’s death, the author reread Austen as a way to cope with her grief. Here, she asserts that through Austen’s novels we can feel more ourselves and see the world clearer. Cohen’s relationship with her father is central to the text; one letter he wrote to her serves as a kind of passageway to Austen’s themes. For instance, reflections on Sense and Sensibility are tied to the deaths of both Austen’s father and Cohen’s. Cohen further draws parallels between Austen’s era and our own, making connections to historical events in the novels, including the Napoleonic Wars and the slave trade. Recognizing the link between memoir and literary criticism, Cohen references new memoirs and commentaries on Austen’s works by scholars and writers such as Virginia Woolf.
VERDICT A successful reminder of how time-honored literature evokes insight into our present reality and why the classics should be read more and often.

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