I was skeptical about The Three Weissmanns of Westport. I didn’t much care for Cathleen Schine’s The Love Letter and couldn’t get through Rameau’s Niece, but you have to admit that a modern take on Sense and Sensibility, if done well, could be very charming — and it is.
The two constrasting Dashwood sisters are transmuted into Annie and Miranda Weissmann, upper-middle-class New Yorkers whose comfortable life flies apart when their father takes up with a venal younger woman. Their mother Betty is kicked out of her comfortable Central Park West apartment and moves to a cottage near Compo Beach in Westport, Connecticut. The “girls” (hovering above and below fifty) follow, to save money. Entertaining emotional and romantic complications ensue.
What’s really impressive here is the narrative tone. Schine manages to move in and out of her characters’ thoughts without friction. Better yet, she channels Austen’s style of humor by sharing the characters’ most ridiculous ideas with the lightest touch. Here is Miranda Barrow considering a suitor for her sister: “It was important to Miranda that Frederick Barrow be a New Yorker. It would not do anyone any good if he lived in San Francisco or taught at the University of Iowa.” So self-involved, so hermetic — and we all know people who think that way.
Some of the pleasure in the book is certainly the life-style comedy. This is not quite the novelistic equivalent of a Nancy Meyers movie but I can certainly imagine the film version being directed b Nora Ephron. At the same time, you can have fun with Schine’s literary house of mirrors; she certainly did. The socially marginal Steele sisters are wonderful Austen inventions: Schine gives us Crystal and Amber, two adorable and fatuous “home sitters” who are studying to be a masseuse and a life coach. The way she renders their language is worth the price of the book. Austen sets her novel at various country houses and in London: Schine chooses Westport, Connecticut and Palm Springs as 21st century American equivalents. The resonance between Sir John Dashwood and Uncle Lou is deeply satisfying.
But Schine is a strong enough writer to shed light of her own on the relationships in her novel and Austen’s prototype. For instance, I’ve always wondered at Elinor Dashwood’s bottomless patience with the emotional Marianne. Schine contributes a gloss on this dynamic: perhaps Annie Weissmann’s worrying about her tempestuous sister Miranda is a kind of self-protective mechanism? “If Annie did not look after Miranda, what other role was there for her? Only resentment, and resentment was such an uncomfortable sentiment. Annie loved Miranda, found her impossible not to love, and very early on she had discovered a way to love her with dignity: worry.” Works for me.
My one quibble is with the pacing. Schine takes her time setting everything up, lingering over descriptions, letting us get to know characters step by step, but there is a sense of haste as the novel barrels to a close. On the other hand, now that I think of it, Austen rather rushed her conclusion, too. And to some extent, once you get all the right couples paired up, there isn’t much more to say, is there? That’s a whole different book.