There are two things happening with All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith – it’s a travelogue, in similar vein to Elizabeth Gilbert’sEat, Pray, Love or anything written by Peter Mayle, but it’s also an interesting take on the Jane Austen cult that has emerged in the mid 1990s, that seems to still be pervasive among book lovers. A idle stroll through the popular fiction section of your local Barnes and Noble will confirm Austen’s evergreen popularity: spin-offs, sequels, parodies, and even horror books that have Austen’s iconic characters tussle with vampires and werewolves; even esteemed mystery writer P.D. James entered the Austen fiction world with her well-receivedDeath in Pemberley.
Smith, an English professor, goes on a trip throughout Latin America, organizing book clubs around a different Austen book, to see if Austen’s themes and messages translate. On the way, she meets up with locals, is infected by a tropical disease, and even finds romance. Your tolerance for Smith’s book will depend on two things: your affection for Jane Austen and your patience for reading about a financially well-off woman getting to take a year off from her life to swanning off to South America.
When Smith shared her plan with some of her colleagues they brought up charges of cultural colonialism. A fair and valid concern, but it was quickly dismissed with the enthusiasm of the readers Smith was able to assemble on her journey. An excellent aspect of this book is the diversity represented in Latin America: for too many, it’s all Mexico. Smith’s strong grasp of Spanish is tested because each country has its own take on the language, and she has to adjust.
As well as the cultural diversity, another fascinating aspect of All Roads Lead to Austen is the debate – the arguments and discussions that Smith leads are wonderful: and even though socially, the groups weren’t terribly diverse, the backgrounds and perspective were fantastically varied. Questions of class, feminism, education and family were raised consistently throughout the debates, but cultural differences from each country would inform the opinions raised.
Smith is a gregarious and funny narrator and she’s also very curious about her surroundings. At the end of the book, I came away with a renewed interested in Jane Austen’s books, as well as, a new interest in Latin American travel. All Roads Lead to Austen is a wonderful, light, read.