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Monday, March 14

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine: A Review

It is no well-kept secret that The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine (now in paperback) was written as a 21st century homage to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. In this modern take of a classic, Betty Weissmann and her two middle aged daughters, Miranda and Annie, meet similar challenges that the Dashwood women faced in the early 19th century – the loss of a husband, and luxurious home and income for Betty, and the absence of a father's loving presence and support in the lives of the two daughters.

I picked up the book and began to read it and could not put it down for the first three chapters, enjoying Cathleen Schine's bright and witty retelling of this classic tale. Joe, Betty's husband of forty-eight years, has decided to leave her for another woman, a fact he withholds from his bewildered wife. Seventy-five year-old Betty had not anticipated this development or equipped herself to live on her own, for she had been a traditional wife, making a comfortable home for her family and not working outside of it.

One of Jane Austen's most famous villainesses, Fanny Dashwood, has been transformed into Felicity Barrows, the woman Joe Weissmann loves and for whom he is leaving his wife. Joe wants to be generous with Betty and leave her in her home, but Felicity, who covets his Central Park West apartment, convinces him that the most generous gift he can give Betty is to take the apartment from her, for, as she tells Joe, his wife cannot afford its upkeep.

Betty, on the other hand, cannot conceive of living anywhere else and is shocked when Joe cuts off her bank account and credit. Enter cousin Lou (Sir John Middleton), a generous character who'se made a bundle and who surrounds himself with scores of people, including those whose circumstances are drastically reduced. In the most timely fashion imaginable, he offers Betty the use of his beach house in Connecticut.

Similarities to Jane Austen's plot are woven throughout this modern narrative and are easy to pick out for even the most casual Austen fan. The book follows these three women through their time of physical and emotional upheaval, for the two unmarried daughters decide to move with their mother into Lou's small cottage. Miranda (as impetuous a character as Marianne and never married) faces a major life challenge when a scandal rocks her literary agency, and Annie, a divorced mother of two and as practical as Elinor, decides to commute to her job as a librarian in New York in order to keep a financial handle on her spendthrift sister and mother.

And thus the plot unfolds.

So with everything going for this bestseller (and a New York Times editors' choice and notable book), why didn't I like it more? The tale is comfortably familiar, Cathleen Schine's writing sparkles, and the book is a breeze to read and a perfect accompaniment on a long flight or lazy weekend. The reader meets the modern equivalents of Colonel Brandon, Willoughby, Edward Ferrars, and the Steele sisters, and is treated to contemporary situations, plot twists and turns, and an unpredictable ending. Yet I never became emotionally involved with the characters, always standing back a little.

As a divorced woman who experienced much of the same bewilderment as Betty, I found that the emotional carnage of losing one's best friend and husband, cozy lifestyle, and shared friends was never fully realized in this novel. (Perhaps my problem with Betty's character was that she lacked the depth and complexity that would have made her more interesting to me.) Miranda at forty-nine is as dramatic and immature in many ways as 17-year-old Marianne, who, by dint of her youth had an excuse for being so overly romantic. One senses that with time, Marianne will mature and outgrow some of her more unrealistic sensibilities. That a middle-aged Miranda is still so unrelentingly theatrical struck the wrong note with my inner Elinor.

Annie's reason for moving to the cottage to take care of her mother seemed thin in this age of easy commuting and telecommunications and electronic oversight of bank accounts and bill paying. And so ultimately this book became (for me) a soap opera in print, albeit with many literary allusions and contemporary associations, such as Miranda's appearance on Oprah, but one that - despite Schine's clever writing - never quite won over my heart.

If you decide to pick up The Three Weissmanns of Westport, my recommendation is to read the book on its own merit and to refrain from comparing it to S&S. You'll enjoy it so much better.


Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

I had many of the same reactions. Well written , but the characters were shallow and I could not relate to them. Did you read/write this review Vic? I can't find any attribution to your post.

Vic said...

I did, Laurel Ann. Thank you for asking. As for the review, I had to think long and hard as to why my heart was not touched, but I enjoyed the book as much as any facile piece of fiction. I wish the author had delved deeper into the characters. Vic

Christina T said...

Thanks for your review! I just picked this up at the library today and I'm hopeful that I will be able to enjoy it as a modern adaptation. I didn't realize that Miranda and Annie were more mature in age. I have a feeling that would make Miranda less credible if she were to behave like the modern equivalent of Marianne.

Mystica said...

Thank you for a wonderful post.

Bee said...

I agree, entirely, with your review. Despite its many good points, the characters are a bit cardboard and it's hard to care much about them. And, yes -- the impetuosity and romanticism of the teenaged Marianne doesn't quite ring true in a middle-aged woman.

Anonymous said...

YUK,another so called janite book,hate them,sorry gail m.