All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey With Jane is a fun, thoughtful, and entertaining memoir by Amy Elizabeth Smith. Amy spent a year travelling through Latin America. In each country she visited, she led or attended a book club meeting about one of Jane Austen's novels. (SB Sarah: And since today, as Carrie noted in an email today, is Jane Austen's birthday, this seemed like a good date to talk about this book.)
She had two primary questions:
1. Do the novels of Austen resonate with contemporary Latin American readers?
2. Who is/are the Austen(s) of Latin America?
Amy did book clubs in Guatemala, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, and Mexico. The titles were Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. In some cases, the group watched one of the movie adaptations of the book as well. She did each book in two countries so that she could compare reactions, which ended up being far more fascinating than I had expected as not only were book clubs conducted in different countries, but some were with writers and teachers, some with less experienced readers, some with students – and everyone had a different perspective on the books. I learned so much about Austen from vicariously attending these sessions. Most notably, I learned that people respond to strongly to Austen because they know people who remind them of the characters. That had never occurred to me, but it's true that, although I'm a huge Jane Eyre fan, I've never actually met anyone remotely like Mr. Rochester, but I've met scores of Lydia's and Mr. and Mrs. Bennets and even, sort of, Mr. Darcy's.
I think my favorite part of the book was the discussion around the second question, that of what writers are beloved in Latin America. Finding out who are the most adored and influential writers of each country by asking avid local readers as opposed to hitting Google makes the story much more of a cultural exchange than a story about someone “…superimposing European literature on those people”, as one of her detractors says early in the book. Amy is humble in her approach, treats her experience as one of learning as well as teaching, and seems like a lovely travelling companion, although she never seemed more like a real person to me than when she lost all her patience with cultural differences as a result of being extremely and uncomfortably ill.
Obviously, this is a memoir, not a romance novel, but there is a romance. I don't think this book is quite as deep as some reviewers seem to believe, but it was delightful. It added to my understanding of what makes Austen so compelling throughout the ages, and it added titles to my TBR list that I would never have otherwise heard of. I also loved the whimsical drawings at the start of each chapter – I would love to buy copies of them as bookplates or notecards. I recommend this highly to any armchair traveler or Austen fan.