"A thoroughly authentic, smart and consoling account of one writer’s commitment to another . . . Austen Years is full of neat observations and provocative comparisons, folded into the story with a subtlety that keeps Cohen’s sense from getting sententious." --Sophie Gee, The New York Times Book Review (editors' choice)
"Among the myriad passionate readers of Austen, who seem to produce dozens of new books about her every year, Cohen occupies a special place . . . Cohen writes with emotion and insight about her father and his death." --Marion Winik, The Washington Post
"In this memoir-essay hybrid, Cohen reads and rereads Jane Austen’s work and tells us not just what it all means but also what it does for us how the author’s pin-sharp assessments and characters instruct us about the world. There isn’t an ounce of kitsch or flowery claptrap. Instead, Cohen overlays a personal account of grieving her father with the help of Austen’s fiction, emerging with one of the most emotionally astute understandings of the novelist’s work, period." --Hillary Kelly, Los Angeles Times
"Cohen has taken her fascination with – and personal dependence on – one great author and transmutes it into something any reader in the world will find downright marvelous . . . The book is at once an impressive analysis of Austen’s fiction and a first-rate biography of the author herself. At its heart, however, this story is as much about the joy of reading as it is about anything else . . . a shining account of how indispensable books can be." --Steve Donoghue, The Christian Science Monitor
"[A] tender, rigorous criticism/memoir hybrid . . . [Austen Years] intimately matches Jane’s literary interrogations especially those about how women process the infinite varieties of grief with tender personal sketches. The premise could turn hokey, but Cohen’s readings are invigorating." --Vulture (29 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer)
"A carefully considered and lyrical memoir . . . Cohen nimbly combines biography, literary criticism and personal reflection. Like Austen’s novels, which were reworked over lengthy periods during which the author’s thoughts and circumstances shifted, Cohen’s memoir – flecked with light and dark, hope and sorrow – has accumulated layers." --Chloë Ashby, TLS
"A complicated hybrid of a book that mixes Cohen’s singular insight into Austen as a writer with Cohen’s personal life . . . a moving and intelligent guide to reading Austen in our days of death . . . In the dark spring of 2020, Cohen turned me back toward Austen. I’m glad she did." --Ann Fabian, The National Book Review
"This haunting and haunted narrative pulls off the impossible task of allowing us to read over a thoughtful writer’s shoulder, allowing us to discover these known-to-death novels by watching her observe, think, and, yes, feel through their pages." --Leah Price, Public Books
"A wondrous mix of memoir and biography . . . [Austen Years] is a book not to be hurried through but consumed in small portions and pondered over as it sparks introspection. [Cohen's] deep knowledge of and respect for Austen’s novels will equally impress Austenites and readers less versed in her works." --Booklist (starred review)
"[Cohen] asserts that through Austen’s novels we can feel more ourselves and see the world clearer . . . A successful reminder of how time-honored literature evokes insight into our present reality and why the classics should be read more and often.” --Denise J. Stankovics, Library Journal
"A thoughtful meditation on the interweaving of literature and life . . . [Cohen] analyzes [Austen's novels] with astute sensitivity . . . A nuanced portrait of a writer and reader." --Kirkus
“Cohen’s incisive new book explores her immersion into Austen’s work during a fraught period in her personal life. Ultimately a narrative about grief, loss and resurfacing, it also provides a deep dive into some of Austen’s most penetrating writing . . . Close reading and rereading grant [Cohen] new insights into her own life, drawn from the awakenings of Austen’s resilient heroines . . . an absorbing pleasure that will stimulate and augment the reading of Austen for fans old and new.” --Robert Weibezahl, BookPage
"[An] erudite . . . exploration of connection and loss . . . Cohen’s writing at its best is lush and lyrical." --Publishers Weekly
"Rachel Cohen’s Austen Years is a work of compassionate and meditative alchemy. It explores the patterns that hold together life, art, love and loss; the spaces between memory and memorialisation, between literary creation and lived experience, between inspiration and revelation, reading and re-reading. Like the implacable action of tidal waters upon the shore, it returns to, shapes, and quietly unearths hidden treasures from what we thought was familiar ground. It’s an absolutely fascinating book: I will never read Austen the same way again." Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk
"I’m excited to read anything Rachel Cohen writes, inspired by the delicate precision of her thought and the grace of her expression. In Austen Years, the marriage of Rachel’s rare attentiveness with Jane Austen's beloved novels makes for an exhilarating and beautiful book." --Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl
“In the achingly precise Austen Years, the refusal to be finished reading the texts that mean most to us converges with the desire to bring a halt to time’s passage in the mourning of the loss of a parent, or the daily transformations of being one. The delicacy and patience of Rachel Cohen’s approach match that of her subject.” –Jonathan Lethem, author of The Feral Detective
"I read Austen Years with real pleasure and fascination over several evenings it’s a truly exceptional piece of work, a tender and moving meditation on fiction and family memory, on Austen and on Cohen’s beloved father, all so surprisingly combined and acutely observed. It’s completely captivating."Richard Holmes, author of This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer
"In her biographies, Rachel Cohen displays one of the most widely ranging minds I've ever encountered in a book. Stunningly, in Austen Years, she reveals that during a lengthy period of personal transitions, she turned exclusively to a single author, Jane Austen, immersing herself intensely. Her memoir is an astonishingly fresh reading of Austen's novels, a deeply felt reexamination of their great themes (love, inheritance, how to be with others in the world), and a lyrical ode to the pleasures and rewards of paying close attention. It will sit next to Pride and Prejudice on my shelf." --Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
In this erudite if uneven exploration of connection and loss, essayist Cohen (A Chance Meeting) draws parallels between her own life and Jane Austen’s life and literary legacy. After Cohen’s aging father died, she fell into a depression as “the rhythm of days altered... the world careened”; seeking comfort, she turned to Austen’s novels and wondered, “Was this a retreat, a seclusion?” To cope with the death of her father, raising her two children, and her own uncertainty regarding her marriage and relationships, Cohen assigned specific titles to major events: Persuasion to the pregnancy and birth of her daughter, Sense and Sensibility to the aftermath of her father’s death, Pride and Prejudice to her pregnancy with her son, Mansfield Park to a move from New York to Chicago, and Emma to when she experienced the tug of parenthood and career. The works of Austen also soothe Cohen as she scatters her father’s ashes in his beloved city of Venice. Cohen’s writing at its best is lush and lyrical, though it can become dense with anecdotal biography, academic literary criticism, and passages of self-analysis. And readers not well versed in Austen will have a hard time finding their way in, despite the synopses Cohen provides. Despite its clever premise, this memoir adds little to the canon of Austen appreciations. (May)
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.—Denise J. Stankovics, Vernon, CT
How Jane Austen's novels can guide readers through joy and grief.
"Criticism and memoir have always been near neighbors," writes essayist and biographer Cohen (Creative Writing/Univ. of Chicago; Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, 2013, etc.); "the gift of a pronounced personal point of view leads to deeper readings, and to new ones." In a thoughtful meditation on the interweaving of literature and life, Cohen recounts her reading during years when her life altered dramatically: Her father died, she married, and her two children were born. Those profound experiences made her vibrantly alert to Austen's themes: "families and friendships and changing history, how we go back over what we have lived, and whether we can hand it on." Although Austen never married or had children, she "did not forget that her books would be read in rooms where babies had just been born, and where parents had breathed their last." Rooms, and the objects within them, reverberated with memories and life. Cohen brings to her analysis a thorough familiarity not only with Austen's unforgettable characters, but also with her critics and biographers, including the "restrained but insightful" memoir written by Austen's nephew. These works help her to contextualize the novels, which she analyzes with astute sensitivity. Austen's characters, in fact, emerge more vividly than many individuals from Cohen's own life. Except for her father, a kind, imaginative man "full of wit" and generosity, others remain shadowy: her mother, a theater director and teacher; Cohen's husband—their convoluted 15-year courtship, a friend remarked, seemed "very Jane Austen"; her sister, son, and daughter. Cohen's father was a professor whose research focused on organizations "and the ways people work and play together." The author remembers him laughing "with delight and with surprise," and she portrays the family's home as "a place of tenderness"—though it was not without mysteries (her father's sudden decision to give all their books away, for example) that, along with treasured memories, came to shape her reading.
A nuanced portrait of a writer and reader.