Sunday, March 7, 2010

Cathleen Schine writes an exhilarating homage to Sense and Sensibility

I have enjoyed several of Cathleen Schine’s novels, but when I read that her latest was a loose homage to Jane Austen’s wonderful Sense and Sensibility, I rushed to read it. It is a successful homage to Austen’s novel, but it is also a wonderful tale in its own ways.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

Cathleen Schine’s The Three Wesissmanns of Westport (292 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $25) is a wonderful novel. It tells the story of seventy-five-year-old Betty Weissmann, whose husband of forty-eight years, Joseph, divorces her and throws her out of her home. His girlfriend, ironically named Felicity, talks Joseph out of letting his wife stay in the Central Park West apartment, and she persuades him that she will be happier living in a cottage in Westport, Connecticut, that a family friend has offered her.

Anyone who has read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility will recognize the scenes from that novel in which Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are forced out of their home when her well-meaning step-son is persuaded by his avaricious wife that he is being overly generous to a woman who does not really need a great fortune to survive.

In Schine’s novel, Betty Weissmann moves to the Westport cottage with her two daughters, Annie, just over, and Miranda, just under fifty. Annie has been married and has two grown sons. Her husband died several years before the action of the novel. Miranda has dated any number of men, but she seems to like falling in love more than she likes sustaining a relationship. As the novel opens, she is between relationships and confronting a crisis in her career.

Annie works in a small private library, and this suits her quiet and inner-directed personality. Miranda is a literary agent, larger than life, who is suddenly confronted with a public outcry and possible bankruptcy because many of her highly touted memoirs turn out to be based on fabricated memories.

These three women take over the cottage, which at first disappoints them in its shabbiness, and make it a new home. In this setting, a few things happen as they should. The nearly hysterical Miranda falls for a dashing young actor who saves her when her kayak overturns. Kit is as handsome and exciting to Miranda as Austen’s Willoughby is to Marianne Dashwood; but unlike Austen’s cad, Kit has been married and has a young son, Henry, who attracts Miranda almost as much as the actor himself does.

While this romance is growing, and before the faithless Kit takes off for a part in a movie (in California), an older, semi-retired lawyer, Roberts, who sports a bow-tie, seems to take an interest in the family in general and in Miranda in particular. We all think we know where this is going. But I am happy to say that Schine surprises us with the details of the plot, improves on Austen, if I can say that, who gives her Brandon the task of saving Marianne. I won’t give the plot away, but what happens to Roberts is very satisfying.

Also satisfying is what happens to Miranda, whose long string of boyfriends hardly prepares us for where her heart takes her in the end. Annie too, controlling everyone and fretting as much as she does, also finds great comfort at the end of the novel.

By the end, Schine has made this her own story and a reader either forgets about Sense and Sensibility or enjoys the ways the novelist has played against her early nineteenth-century model. She tells a warm and generous story, and she makes us care deeply about what happens to the three Weissmanns of Westport.

Cathleen Schine

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  1. And a like that the mother gets her own story is a real character in the novel, again an improvement on Austen.

  2. Right, an dI thought the age of the characters, while not an improvement exactly, at least made the story less predictable.