REVIEW: Jane Austen in Scarsdale, or Love, Death, and the SATs, by Paula Marantz Cohen

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Jane Austen in Scarsdale Review by TeresaAF

I am reminded of a story: young woman meets handsome though unpromising young man whom she promptly abandons for what she assumes is a sure thing, only to discover soon after that the sure thing was more to her detriment than to her benefit.

The above is not from Jane Austen’s Persuasion; it is a story out of my own life, and I would certainly never presume to fancy myself as having the sweetness of temper of Anne Elliot or that my hopeless young man even remotely resembled in Frederick Wentworth in word or deed.

Yet Paula Marantz Cohen gives us a good balance in Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs by replicating a similar Persuasionesque situation, though not necessarily feeling obligated to fashion her heroine into the identical image of Sir Walter Elliot’s second daughter.

Anne Ehrlich, a put-upon high school guidance counselor, suffers under the dual plight of too much attention from fanatical, college-obsessed parents and from too little attention from her own insensitive father and sister. The one bright spot in Anne’s life is her grandmother, Winnie, the once-rich, glamorous hostess of Scarsdale society, who is now widowed, penniless, and wheelchair-bound in the crumbling family manor in the New York City suburbs. Winnie serves as both wrong-minded advisor and advocate of Anne’s second chance at happiness.

The hero, Ben Cutler, whom Anne, on the advice of her grandmother, cast off long ago, returns to the scene after several years’ absence. Previously a poor college student who worked his way though school as a travel agent, Ben is now the perfect catch: a wealthy, world-famous travel writer who has not come back into town alone. Ben is now equipped with a stunning Scandinavian fiancée, a flighty though well-meaning elder sister, and a nephew who, conveniently to the plot, is a high school senior with college aspirations.

The book also gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of a high school guidance office, which, if I am honest with myself, would have been the far more interesting story. It is obvious to the reader that the author took great pains to be intimately acquainted with her subject. Ms. Cohen fascinates us by showcasing the lengths to which some parents go through to assure their child’s admittance into one elite college after another.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a wonderful writer who I believe could have told this story perfectly well without the need to “prop it up” by using Jane Austen’s name in the book’s title. It can be safely categorized as a Persuasion-like story in the vein of Helen Fielding’s Edge of Reason: just Persuasion-like enough to pique a Janeite’s passing interest, but dissimilar enough not to upset our delicate sensibilities.

The story does have its faults. It is a little weak in places, almost as if the author didn’t have the energy to fully explain some things. Additionally, the length of the chapters, though pleasing and stylish in some instances, could have gone on a bit longer to give the reader a touch more detail for exposition’s sake. Also, I think that her minor characters could have benefited by a reduction in number; Ben Cutler’s near-absence in the story suffered at the expense of the author’s need to delve too minutely into the other characters’ lives. These defects aside, it still is a charming and harmless little novel that I am sure most would enjoy.