There are probably few authors in history with as rabid and devoted a fan base as Jane Austen. Today, some 200 years after her passing, these fans, known as Janeites gather together for book clubs, historical societies, and even themed (costumed) events. As a result, in the USA and the UK alone, dozens of films adaptations of her work have been made, a countless number of modernized retellings of her stories have been written, filmed, and performed on stage, and a few ardent (and talented) fans have even managed to publish sequels to some of Austen’s better known works. Exactly why this is, is of course an ongoing source of debate by both scholars and Janeites alike, but most agree that it has (at least in part) to do with how utterly relatable her characters and the situations they find themselves embroiled in, continue to be.
However, after reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author, a Professor of English and self-proclaimed Janeite, began to wonder how her favorite author’s work translated into other cultural experiences. Would readers, with a different language, religion, and ethnic background, find Austen’s characters as familiar and their situations as easy to relate to? It was in search of answers to these questions that Smith’s book was born. In place of reading six different authors with one group of readers as Nafisi did, Smith instead sets out to read one author in six different countries throughout Central and South America. Furthermore, in each of these six countries she also planed to learn which authors were the best and most beloved; in short she wanted to discover who were their Jane Austens.
Over the course of a year, Smith traveled to Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina, holding discussions about one of 3 Austen works (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma) in each country. A long the way, like any Austen heroine, she suffers heartache and homesickness, but in the end, finds her own happily-ever-after. However, unlike an Austen character, she also manages to face tropical disease, language barriers, and political unrest.
To be honest, I cannot express just how much I loved this book, it was well paced, intelligent, humorous, and interesting; and best of all it seamlessly integrated my two greatest loves: books and travel. I literally could not put it down. In many ways, because of how the author relates her tales, it honestly feels like you are there along with her. Throughout the book Smith’s voice is casual and humorous; simultaneously drawing quite vivid pictures of her surroundings and heartwarmingly honest descriptions of her interactions with the individuals she meets along the way. Including, I must say, when the author herself felt she had either overstepped her bounds or fallen into the trap of being ethnocentric in her interpretations/reactions to some of her experiences.
My one minor criticism is, as someone with a background in both the hard and soft sciences, I had trouble with Smith’s lack of correction for her sample selection bias. Comparing the interpretations of a group of poets living in a university town in one country, with the impressions given by a much less educated and economically less affluent group in another country, and then attributing those differences to culture rather than other social factors is a bit of a misstep in my opinion. Smith does mention the differences, but never gets around to actually saying outright that these social factors may have played a roll in these differences. However, since this intention of this book was not to publish a scientific study, but rather to be more of a memoire/travelogue, it was not hard to forgive this minor lapse. Especially, when one takes into account how very hard Smith tries to steer the reader away from the bias of thinking of Central and South America as one uniformly “Latin” culture. Throughout the book she diligently tries to highlight the unique flavors of each countries culture and history in much the way Austen does in her books. She brings the reader into the daily lives, experiences and relationships of the heroine, thus allowing the reader to experience the narrative along with her.
If you long for adventure, love Jane Austen, and want to learn more about Central and South America in a casual and often amusing way, I would strongly recommend reading this book. Just make sure you have a pen and paper handy because I guarantee that you will not only want to add a few destinations to your travel bucket list, but you most assuredly will discover a number of new book titles to add to your (probably ever growing) list of books you want to read.