So many Gentle Readers wrote to us and so many Janeite acquaintances said to us, “Did you hear about this new book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport?” that we became intrigued. We did not receive a review copy, but everyone kept telling us about it and seemed surprised we had not read it, so we could not help thinking it might be a good sort of book and one that perhaps we should read in our copious free time. A while back, we noticed it on the list of NY Times Bestsellers at Kobo for a very good price, and we had a generous coupon, so decided to give it a try.
The book is a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility. After 50 years of marriage, Joseph Weissmann tells his wife, Betty, that he wants a divorce, and that she has to vacate her beloved prewar Upper West Side apartment, which she has lovingly tended and improved since the 1950s, to make way for his new love, Felicity. Fanny Dashwood-like, Felicity has convinced Joseph that by kicking Betty out of her home, he is actually being generous, and Joseph very much wants to be generous.
Betty’s cousin Lou, a refugee who has made a pile in real estate, offers an empty cottage he owns in Westport, Connecticut, to the widow. She moves there with her daughters, Annie and Miranda. Passionate, impetuous Miranda is a literary agent specializing in memoirs whose business fails when several of her clients’ memoirs are outed as mostly made-up. Sensible Annie, long divorced, is a librarian; her finances are not as precarious as those of her mother and sister, but if she sublets her Manhattan apartment, she can help her adult sons pay for college and medical school. The three women move together to the cottage, which turns out to be a throwback to pre-gentrified Westport, not “beautified” or improved in any way and actually quite run-down.
We liked the idea of using modern characters to show that women are still prone to sudden financial downfall; but in this economy, who isn’t, really? And the Weissmann ladies have the advantage of the Dashwood ladies in that they can earn a living. Well, Betty is perhaps too old, and Miranda has to wait until her legal troubles are settled.
Overall the story follows S&S quite closely, and we enjoy seeing the modern, Westport avatars of Edward Ferrars (a middle-aged author, brother to Felicity); Lucy and Anne Steele (tacky young gold-digging housesitters); Colonel Brandon (a neighbor who wears bow ties and rarely says a word); and Willoughby (a young actor with whom Miranda gets her groove back). There are some truly funny moments, especially the hilariously stupid things that thoughtless, not very bright people say: in that way it is very much like Jane Austen’s novels.
However, we had some issues with the book, and they might not be issues that other readers will have. We were kind of annoyed at Ms. Schine’s prose style. For instance, while the popular culture references were quite funny and gave the attentive reader a quiet “a-ha” moment for direct and indirect references to Bernie Madoff, Shamwow and Slanket, Oprah, and James Frey and other faux-memoirists, we can’t help thinking that such timely references are not wise for long-term readership, as they date a novel. In twenty years, will anyone know from a Shamwow, really? Will the next generation, and the next, understand the full depth of a reference to James Frey without a footnote? Jane Austen ran into this problem herself with Northanger Abbey, and as there was a more than ten-year delay in publishing it, she wrote an apologia about Things That Aren’t There Anymore. Clearly it was something she learned to avoid, as none of her other novels can be completely pinned down to a particular date, except Persuasion, and that specific setting was chosen for a specific purpose. We were told, back in the day when we were a student of Creative Writing, that it was best to avoid dating our work with pop culture references, and it troubles us when we see it in modern works (which we do rather oftener than makes us comfortable).
There was a lot of meandering prose in which we were told everything about the characters. Telling is not good in storytelling; showing is better. Again, this is something that Jane Austen did much better than her contemporaries, at a time when prose style was still very much in development.
According to some interviews, Ms. Schine was re-reading Austen and thought it would be an interesting exercise to show how modern women are just as vulnerable financially through divorce as women in Jane Austen’s day were through widowhood and the law of primogeniture (which really had nothing to do with S&S; the problem there was an entailment). Showing Jane Austen’s themes as timeless is an endeavor we can appreciate. However, we are of the opinion that if one undertakes to place a Jane Austen book in a modern setting, and then follows the original very closely for all but the last few pages of the book, one should not rewrite the ending. Jane Austen doesn’t need Cathleen Schine’s help any more than she needs Andrew Davies’. The ending of S&S is fine the way it is. If the references in the modern work had been more subtle and passing, we could easily forgive some extra stirs to the pot, but as the novel follows the plot of S&S very closely, one cannot help but take such wholesale and startling changes to the ending as anything but an uncomplimentary commentary on the original.
(Following contains some spoilers for Weissmanns—you can skip over them if you don’t want to be spoiled)
It is fairly obvious that the authoress does not like the ending of S&S. We get that she’s saying that Edward Ferrars is a weakling, ruled by his passions, and that an improved version of Willoughby will be best for Marianne, and that Brandon and Elinor belong together. We’ve heard all these arguments before. However, we think an attentive reading of Sense and Sensibility, and an understanding of eighteenth-century social mores, proves otherwise.
Edward Ferrars showed his true quality when his engagement with Lucy Steele became public knowledge: he manned up, admitted his engagement, and declared his intention to carry through with it, though everyone, even Lucy, knew he no longer loved her. He didn’t have to marry Lucy; she could have been easily bought off, and no doubt Mrs. Ferrars would have scolded, but she would have done it. The tragic irony was that Edward showed Elinor (who already knew it) that he was worthy of her by giving her up forever, and in that act earned the happiest of endings from his authoress. It’s all about Duty Before Self, which is an extremely important concept in Jane Austen’s novels, and one that is not well-understood in our modern, more selfish time.
As for Marianne, she and Willoughby would have been bored with each other in a few years, and he would have gone off whoring around and spending money they didn’t have, and she might have tumbled headlong into a passionate affaire, disgracing herself and possibly setting herself up for a divorce, simply because Marianne needs to be cherished. Brandon will cherish her. He is getting a second chance and he will not let it get away from him as he did with Eliza (speaking of Duty Before Self). And in Brandon, Marianne wasn’t settling for second-best; she found someone even more romantic than herself, though he had learned to control it in public life. In private, no doubt he was as gushy and passionate as she could like. Remember, Marianne could never love by halves.
The ending of S&S is just as it should be. It doesn’t need fixing, really. In Jane We Trust.
(End of Spoilers)
Despite our complaining, we think other readers might really like The Three Weissmanns of Westport, but we could not, though we tried very hard and kept telling ourself how very clever it was; though after finishing the book, we found our arguments as to cleverness rather less convincing. It is occasionally amusing and has a happy ending, though not the one Jane Austen gave her characters. However, we found that in this case, modern improvements were unfortunately counteracted by an awkward taste.
Smut scale: Mild. The book contains adult situations, but nothing really explicit. No Insert Tab A Into Slot B, but some dreamlike, emotional, metaphorical descriptions of the physical act of love, and a couple of fade-to-black moments.