Some say there’s a fine line between genius and madness. The Book of Jane is a chick-lit rewriting of the Book of Job.
This is the third book in which the authors, Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt, have explored the spiritual dilemmas of good-natured, privileged American women. With this one, Dayton and Vanderbilt have intuited, I think, that something is seriously lacking in the sunshiney, Tide-commercial Christianity of this country. In a prosperity-Gospel culture where even the Catholics think Vatican II said that being Christian wouldn’t hurt anymore, a chick-lit Job is a terrific idea — a sort of Jesus jujitsu, using the weight of an inherently fluffy and this-worldly genre to drag the protagonist to the foot of the Cross.
Unfortunately, instead of overturning the assumptions of their chosen genre, Dayton and Vanderbilt capitulate. In this battle between chick lit and God, chick lit wins.
The novel follows a young woman who works for a New York p.r. firm. Jane’s troubles begin when she seeks to make the firm more socially responsible by mounting a celebrity campaign for a vague anti-hunger organization. This is one of two nice touches in the novel: that the heroine’s downfall stems from her desire to do good. This twist is probably necessary to make Jane a proper Job, since in other respects she is not obviously a righteous woman. She goes to church, prays for things she gets, and is grateful for them; that’s about it. In her relations with other humans, her Christianity serves mainly to make her pleasant and a virgin (albeit a foolish one). Jane lives for almost the entire novel in a New York without prostitutes, beggars, or… you know… anyone who isn’t well-to-do and white.
She does lose a lot of things, though. She loses her looks to a face rash, her boyfriend to their mutual naivete, her job and her reputation to a malicious rumor that she’s playing the other woman with her married celebrity client. Her Girl Scout troop abandons her. Her dog is hospitalized. Her family, in the role of Job’s comforters, treats her with unexpected callousness. Her apartment floods and she has to crash at a sketchy motel, outside of which she’s mugged at gunpoint. This last event is genuinely awful, and it’s a sign of how relentlessly the authors refuse to exploit their material that Jane shows no sign whatsoever of heightened fear or lasting trauma.
In fact, Jane’s entire ordeal lasts just over 50 pages of this 300-page novel. One of the most spiritually devastating aspects of suffering is that it doesn’t stop. Jane, by contrast, has two bad days, and by the next night she’s ensconced in splendor at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Every punch is pulled. Job lost his wife and children; Jane’s dog gets sick and then gets better. Her face rash is impetigo. Even at her lowest point, she’s solvent, well-educated, HIV-negative, etc., with her parents still alive and married to one another. If you’re reading this review, you’ve almost certainly had days worse than Jane’s Jobian ordeal.
Jane doesn’t even have the worst day within the novel. Her best friend loses his mother to cancer. I can’t emphasize this enough: Jane’s dog recovers, her friend’s mom dies.
And that’s why the novel isn’t much fun: It dodges suffering. You could wring terrific comedy from a real chick-lit girl really getting pummeled — Reese Witherspoon stars in a script by Samuel Beckett. But Jane’s semi-descent alienates the reader to the point that I actively rooted for the dog to die.
Perhaps these pulled punches explain the novel’s weirdest lacuna: the trial of God. The most striking facts about the Book of Job are that Job puts God on trial and, perhaps more startling, God submits to stand in the dock.
Jane, by contrast, does spend a few sentences asking why all this is happening, but is quickly satisfied by her preexisting belief that God has a plan for us all.
The content of her faith rarely gets beyond an American optimism. The only scene where it’s important that Jane is a Christian, rather than, say, an especially complacent dialectical materialist, is a scene where she forgives the patently unrepentant slanderer who cost her her job. (This is the second of the nice touches that I mentioned.)
At the novel’s end, Jane has a healthy dog, a slightly damp apartment, and a better boyfriend. (Her best friend’s mother is still dead.) She gets a job with the YMCA. An actual poor human child appears in this section, to help in her moral development. The YMCA is great, but I did wonder at the overall quietism of Jane’s faith. Christianity should turn the world upside-down; it doesn’t even knock Jane off-balance.
James Agee, in a Nation review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, wrote of “those novels whose authors go through half the pockets of the astounded Christian world merely by writing a few hundred pages housebreaking ten lionlike words from the New Testament.” I hope The Book of Jane falls decisively into that category only because its authors failed — not because they achieved their goal.