The Family Fortune by Laurie Horowitz

Before a book actually starts to unravel its tale, discerning readers judge it based on little things like the dedication and the acknowledgements. In the case of The Family Fortune, I was especially touched by the dedication to her father, and simultaneously impressed by the subtle but immediate attention it calls to the problem with Sir Walter, or, here, Teddy Fortune. Horowitz thanks Elinor Lipman, a kindred spirit, in the acknowledgements, and so it happened that I was predisposed in favor of The Family Fortune.

That predisposition was justified quite quickly by a humorous pun (on the family name, and on what happens in polite society to an unmarried young lady with such a surname: Miss Fortune), a troubling Anne Eliot-type stagnation (38, still at home, surrounded by “old money aristocracy” on Beacon Hill), and a whole host of parallels to Austen’s Persuasion, on which this tale is based. Our heroine, Jane, knows that the people among whom she lives maintain a “tenacious grip on [their] way of life” even as it becomes obvious that they are “becoming obsolete” (2). She has a younger sister, Winnie (Mary) who married Charlie (Charles Musgrove), had two boys (same), and moved to a nearby town (same). Jane’s older sister Miranda (Miss Eliot) also lives at home, is nearly forty, and befriends the class-less Dolores Mudd (Mrs. Clay), daughter of Littleton (Mr. Clay), the family lawyer. Father Teddy is obsessed with appearances, and while the home may not be covered in mirrors as Kellynch is, there are other bizarre signs that will make you laugh (ex: When he tells Jane to borrow his Crème de la Mer, she notes that she “just couldn’t bring [herself] to borrow emollients from [her] father” and “didn’t even like to go into his bathroom, because it retained the fruity scent of a person too well preserved”) (10). Their Bath is Palm Beach, where Jane has trouble picturing herself “walking the streets among the tanned and the leathered” (54).

Captain Wentworth appears in the form of one Max Wellman, a brilliant writer whose prize-winning story tells the tale of his relationship with Jane; although the shifts back and forth left me occasionally confused about when certain events occurred, they did help illuminate the differences in everyone’s situations during the 15-year break, and they make clear (to us, anyway) that Max hasn’t forgotten her.  The Crofts appear here as the classiest people around, Hollywood people instead of naval officers, people with humble beginnings who have made something of themselves. It’s a fascinating parallel to Austen’s world, made more intense by the fact that the Goldmans are Jews moving in a stubbornly clannish old Boston social circle, and Jane’s family would be hesitant to let Jane marry Max for this reason as well as for others. The story of the romance gone awry doesn’t appear until chapter 10, and, because we know through Anne that there was one, we eagerly await its unveiling. The two don’t actually see each other until page 99, at which time they are joined by the Wheaton girls, Lindsay and Heather, who mill about Max eagerly as their brother and sister-in-law watch.

Priscilla, the Lady Russell character, was Jane’s mother’s best friend, and believes that the purpose of marriage is to “shield [one’s] partner from the world’s bad opinion” (3). Jane, of course, hopes there’s more to marriage, despite being the most sensible of her sisters. Priscilla “managed to convince” Jane, and the reader wonders why Horowitz here shies away from the more obvious “persuades” since persuasion is at the heart of both novels. There is little mention of Jane Austen—first, as an ice sculpture head someone torches at the Ritz, and later as a writer our main character reads every summer (we don’t learn the latter detail until quite late in the story, which mystified me a bit.) There’s certainly no Austen precedent (at least in Persuasion, but maybe Horowitz used Lady Susan as a model) for Priscilla’s cougar behavior.

Horowitz entertains the reader with many good names, lines, and links. Mrs. Croft, a rebel in her own way, is rightfully named Emma Goldman. She is described as wearing “her happiness lightly but carefully, like a lace shawl” (127). The depressed Benwick character who harps on Romantic poetry, becomes Basil Funk (almost Dickensian!), who is obsessed with over the top art. When Max’s hair is freshly cut, “he looked like a lawn [Jane] couldn’t wait to roll around on” (279). The scheming Mr. Eliot character, Miranda’s ex, Guy, is cleverly set up to pursue Jane but to appear to everyone else like he’s pursuing Miranda again. And Miranda finally gets what she deserves when she embarrasses herself with inadvertent racism towards a writer at a party—followed closely by a public announcement of the engagement of her little sister to the hottie Miranda herself wanted.

Only Winnie seems to fare better here than she does in the original. This little sister is more clever and less completely self-absorbed than is Mary Musgrove, and, as a result, she is closer to Jane, and has the potential to be closer to her husband. Though she spends time when we first meet her at Glaze and Amaze (their version of Color Me Mine?) and shopping for items she later hides from Charlie, Winnie has character, and there are some fun scenes with her that aren’t caused by us laughing at her.

There’s plenty else to laugh at, and this is a story that both entertains and enlightens.

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Published in: on June 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

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