The Three Weissmans of Westport
Sara Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, $25
Unmarried sisters who have lost their money, a mother who’s been cast from her home, a rich party-throwing relative, and a passel of intriguing men who may or may not be as they appear: sounds like a Jane Austen novel, doesn’t it? That’s not an accident. Cathleen Schine wrote The Three Weissmans of Westport as an homage to Sense and Sensibility, the first book published by this early 1800s originator of the social novel.
All of Austen’s classic pieces are in place, but with poignant, modern-day twists. When Miranda and Annie Weissman’s stepfather falls for a younger woman, their 75-year-old mother, Betty, is tossed from privilege into late-life-divorce limbo. She’s suddenly homeless and near penniless, and when jolly, generous cousin Lou offers use of his Connecticut cottage, she says yes. But she won’t be there alone: Her daughters, both facing their own midlife crises, decide to move in there with her. Miranda, the emotional younger sibling, is a literary agent who promotes authors of “ghastly and lurid” memoirs, “recounting every detail of their mortification and misery.” Unfortunately, several of these books prove to contain more fantasy than fact, and a public outing on Oprah puts an end to her career. Annie, the director of a private library, has always been the sensible sister. But her husband left when her two college-age sons were tiny, and both her nest and her bank account are echoingly empty.
Of course, there are romantic problems as well. Unlike Miranda’s many, dramatic affairs, Annie’s assignations are rare, but a promising beginning with a well-known novelist seems to be fizzling.
For all, a picturesque cottage in Westport seems like just the place to heal and regroup. Unfortunately, the cottage turns out to be rundown and shabby, and Betty and Miranda seem unable to adjust to their new nonexistent incomes, leaving Annie the sole wage earner and worrier. Betty becomes enamored of buying As Seen on TV items, and Miranda gets a kayak and paddles it around Long Island Sound. When a sudden storm crashes her little boat, she’s rescued by a handsome young man. Hero or cad? Austen’s fans will know pretty quickly, but there’s never any doubt about his two-year-old son. Soon after, Annie’s novelist reappears, trailing his own chain of drama and complication.
Some call Austen the inventor of chick lit, but neither her novels nor this one are as trivial as that moniker implies. Through it all, the Weissmans ponder the big stuff: aging, depression, love, and loyalty, plentifully spiced by Schine with twists of wry humor. Despair is the center this book’s plot wheel revolves around, and loss—of a partner, of work, of a sense of idealism about life. But there’s also the surprising and unexpected sense of bereavement that occurs when small children grow up to be adults.
The plot of Sense and Sensibility revolves around the interplay of reason and emotion, and that balance is maintained here as well. But there’s one thematic area where Schine departs wholesale from Austen’s guide.
Mature love, she seems to say, is fragile and fickle. It comes, it goes, and, invariably, it hurts. But the love between parent and child is a far more pure and compelling creature. Jane Austen, who died in her early forties, unmarried and childless, probably wouldn’t have understood that part at all.
Cathleen Schine will read from The Three Weissmans of Westport at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on April 17 at 7:30pm.