The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

This story starts off with sadness: a 78-year old man demands a divorce from his 75-year-old wife (of 48 years), and she can’t understand why. Quickly, Schine develops the links between her story and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The divorce fills in for Mr. Dashwood’s death, the sad opening that changes the lives of Austen’s heroines, but this time the instigator of the trouble is a more likeable villain than is John Dashwood. Josie, the 78-year-old man divorcing Betty (Mrs. Dashwood), has raised her two daughters, Annie (Elinor) and Miranda (Marianne) from the time they were little, and he misses them, and Betty, as the life he knew falls away (at his own bidding, yes, but still). The real villain is, of course, Fanny Dashwood, here played by Felicity, a younger woman who works in Josie’s office and knew what kind of life he led before she destroyed it. It is she who persuades Josie to move Betty out of their Manhattan home, and Felicity into it. Betty calls herself a widow throughout the story, and though the girls and she suffer the “loss” of the man they knew in a different way from death, he is “lost” to them for most of the story.

As we might expect, Betty and Miranda are “both believers in love” and so fail to understand what is happening (until each leans about Felicity), whereas Annie wants to explain why this is happening and fix it (get him to a neurologist and then see a lawyer) (8). Annie is divorced with two grown sons and now works as a librarian in the Upper West Side. When she isn’t coping with all the bills her sister and mother neither pay nor look at, Annie tries to inhabit the “soft, dappled world” of 19th and 20th century English novels (36). Miranda never married, loves to be in love, and is a literary agent whose career, after a shameful appearance on Oprah, goes downhill quickly. She has “always playfully bestowed” an “ironic voice with [a] Yiddish lilt” to G-d, and she’s the reason why the text needs to clarify the difference between “self-absorbed” (yes) and “selfish” (no) (19). Since Felicity is Fanny, it makes sense that she has a much nicer brother (Frederick/Edward Ferrars) who is interested in Annie and also a not much nicer nephew (Evan/Robert Ferrars) who pops in from time to time. Meanwhile, since Betty is suddenly without financial resources, Schine gives her a Cousin Lou (Sir John Middleton) to provide a cottage in Westport and friendly company. Since all three women need a change, they go to live there together.

In Westport, we meet the rest of the characters. Lou’s wife, Rosalyn, isn’t the most sensitive person around (I don’t remember Lady Middleton being that way, but Lady M had four annoying kids to think about, and Rosalyn has none). Her father (Mrs. Jennings) comes to live with them because he is suffering from dementia of sorts (normally a tragic situation, but Schine lightens the mood by having him still enjoy life and cause amusement for others, such as when he asks who the old man bothering him is—and the old man is his annoying daughter). A guy with a yellow bow tie (who turns out to be quite muscular under all those clothes) is the Colonel Brandon (Roberts) figure, and when Miranda walks on the beach and tries to examine her soul, we know she must be about to fall and meet Willoughby. Instead, Schine sends her off on a kayak without training, and Kit Maybank, a “handsome boy with tiny whales on his pants,” gets to do the rescuing by sea (82). This debonair, much younger man, has a son, Henry (to whom Miranda really seems more connected) and is an aspiring actor. Oh no.

I kept waiting for the Palmers to arrive. (He is a personal favorite.)

In lieu of the evil Mrs. Ferrars who threatens to withhold money and power from Edward if he strays from the path she has chosen for him, we have the aforementioned villainess Felicity and two evil children (okay, not completely rotten, like Iago, but still pretty selfish). The daughter, Gwen, named her twin daughters Juliet and Ophelia (WHY?), and they’re a pair of little brats (my interpretation, yes, but even the nicest of you would find them over-indulged and annoying). I had been wondering what Gwen could possibly threaten to do to her father (to make him obey her and stay away from Annie), and then I saw it: withholding the brats (to whom Frederick must want access since he is their grandfather). Rosalyn has taken interest in two stupid sisters. Crystal (Anne Steele) is studying to be a life coach; I tried not to take offense when Schine made her speak like a Valley Girl [first, she mistakes a coyote for a wolf, and then she says, “Oh my G-d, I was freaking out” (emphasis not mine) (175)]. Amber (Lucy Steele) is a masseuse. She manages to snag Frederick with the usual trick to force men of honor into marriages they don’t want, and has the nerve to confide in Annie and then to call her fiancé “Daddy-o” (227).

Moments between sisters are some of the best scenes here. I loved the scene in which Miranda tries to help Frederick talk with Annie; it reminded me a lot of Sense and Sensibility and Marianne’s frustration with Edward. The fight scene was handled differently but effectively. I was surprised in this text that we don’t hear much about Miranda’s sexual energy upfront; instead, she responds to the sense of calm she feels being with Kit, but really taking care of his young son (who calls her “Randa”). We do, however, have marked attention to the passion of classy, respectable Annie, who has learned properly to “anesthetize” her physical responses to men (111).  Annie also has strong moral fiber—she had wanted a Bat Mitzvah for the “right” reasons, for example, and she read War and Peace while she was pregnant, which I’m partial to, given the origins of my name—and she will find the love she deserves, with someone who really shares that essential uprightness of character.

I was rather shocked by the surprise twist near the end (not the one at the end of chapter 20 or at the end of chapter 21, but the one at the beginning of chapter 21), and I’m still not sure that was necessary. Just as you come to predict what will happen, Schine will throw one surprise at you after another. This is not Sense and Sensibility, she seems to say, even if it makes you laugh (ex: “The goyim . . . do not feed their guests; it is not their custom, and we must respect the customs of other cultures, but that does not mean we have to starve,” p. 234), cry (ch 21!), and think, and even if there is a reference to the novel (Annie finds a first volume of “the two-volume first American edition of Sense and Sensibility” (222). The language is clear, and often pretty, and the story will take you on a journey worth taking.

Published in: on October 7, 2010 at 6:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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