The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine – A Review

The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine (2011)Today marks the official opening of the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011. *throws confetti* It is my year-long homage to Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. Please read all the details of the event and join in the challenge open until March 1, 2011.

My first selection is the bestselling, feel good, let’s laugh and cry novel of 2010, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine. It will be released in paperback on February 1st, so no more procrastinating because of pocketbook woes.

There are so many raving reviews of this novel on the Internet I feel very late to the party. I usually write rambling book and movie reviews in excruciating detail, but for this challenge I am trying a new approach. Tell me if you like it, or hate it. I know you will. ;-) Here is the publisher description followed by my brief impressions:

Jane Austen’s beloved Sense and Sensibility has moved to Westport, Connecticut, in this enchanting modern-day homage to the classic novel. When Joseph Weissmann divorced his wife, he was seventy eight years old and she was seventy-five . . . He said the words “Irreconcilable differences,” and saw real confusion in his wife’s eyes. “Irreconcilable differences?” she said. “Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce?” Thus begins The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a sparkling contemporary adaptation of Sense and Sensibility from the always winning Cathleen Schine, who has already been crowned “a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen” by People’s Leah Rozen.

In Schine’s story, sisters Miranda, an impulsive but successful literary agent, and Annie, a pragmatic library director, quite unexpectedly find themselves the middle-aged products of a broken home. Dumped by her husband of nearly fifty years and then exiled from their elegant New York apartment by his mistress, Betty is forced to move to a small, run-down Westport, Connecticut, beach cottage. Joining her are Miranda and Annie, who dutifully comes along to keep an eye on her capricious mother and sister. As the sisters mingle with the suburban aristocracy, love starts to blossom for both of them, and they find themselves struggling with the dueling demands of reason and romance.

My Quibbles: The main characters were shallow, self-absorbed and hard to like; slim caricatures of Austen originals. Two fifty-something unmarried ladies and a seventy-something divorcee talking about themselves and wallowing in misery is not Austenish, at all. What happened to a witty comedy of manners? Maybe that was the author’s point. Are we more materialistic and bitter than nineteenth-century ladies in the same circumstances? Even though Betty (Mrs. Dashwood) was thrown over by her husband of fifty years for a woman half her age, I began to think he had good reason. Making Miranda (the Marianne character) a calculating literary agent gave me the shivers for those honorable agents in the profession, and Annie (the Elinor) the librarian, who should be stoic and admirable, is supporting her mother and sister, why? She is more an enabler of bad behavior than a help. Ack! The romance was more than a bit thin, and the end Louisa? Don’t even get me started. Find out for yourself!

My Praise: Funny, irreverent and quirky. The transformation of Austen’s early-nineteenth century classic to modern-day New York and Westport, Connecticut was a clever notion, mainly because of Schine’s understanding of the social context of both cultures. The Jewish humor was so appropriate. They have been persecuted for centuries and do irony and misery better than anyone else. When seventy-five year old impoverished Betty Weissmann rationalizes a shopping spree to Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s in New York before she meets her soon-to-be-ex-husband and his attorney, because she must look stunning, you totally believe her and understand her character’s motivation. You do not agree, but you understand. While her daughter Miranda must have a shiny new red kayak to find her soul, you roll your eyes and compare Austen’s Marianne Dashwood romanticizing over dead leaves. Schine follows Austen’s narrative pretty closely and modernizes it surprisingly. The characters are foibled and fraught with emotion and angst. The secondary characters add humor and conflict.  If you can overlook some of the shallow soul searching, profligate spending and incredible coincidences that fuel the plot, this was a fun lark, albeit a bit annoying at times.

3.5 out of 5  Stars

A Grand Giveaway

Win one of two paperback copies of The Three Weissmann’s of Westport, by Cathleen Schine, by leaving a comment by midnight PT February 2, 2011 stating what intrigues you about reading a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility. Winners will be announced on Thursday, February 3, 2011. Shipment to US addresses only.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine
Picador (2011)
Trade paperback (304) pages
ISBN: 978-0312680527

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

22 thoughts on “The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine – A Review

  1. I like the basic idea of the modernization, but after reading your review I question how much “sense” and “sensibility” these three modern women will show.

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  2. I hadn’t heard of this book but the description made it sound interesting. Your review leaves me less interested but I will probably read it anyway. jance’s characters can be described in many ways but whiny isn’t (one of them (my words not yours).

    S&S is has a great plot and great characters and should have re-imaginings that are worthy of Marianne and Elinor.

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  3. The transformation of almost any culture to a contemporary context intrigues me! I am impressed by the idea that despite cultural progression, human emotions, love, loss and the ability to regroup in the face of adversity remain challenging no matter what the era.

    I look forward to finding the “funny” and “irreverent” in the Austen inspired characters as they winsomely reveal themselves in Westport. D. Logan

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  4. The Three Weissmanns is on my S&S Challenge list as well, so I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t like it more. But I’m still going to read it, but maybe with a more critical eye.

    Any modern update of Sense and Sensibility intrigues me because of how it would (potentially) handle the Marianne/Willoughby relationship. The scandal of Willoughby seducing another woman (a girl), getting her pregnant and then abandoning her doesn’t have the same sort of stigma today as it did in Austen’s time (though it’s still a crappy thing to do).

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  5. I have not heard of this book. It would be interesing to see how this modern day novel would play out. It sounds like a good book although while reading it I would be thinking about your review. I would like to read it, but I don’t think any moderen day novel depicting Jane Austen would take a strong standing. Thank you for offering this challenge.

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  6. I love the fact that they are more self-centered than our beloved Austen characters. Perhaps Jane put her own spin on the Dashwoods to disguise them from real people she knew.

    I’m really interested in reading this update of S & S after reading your review. I wonder if I’d feel the same as you. Funny, irreverent, quirky and about characters who are much older. Sounds like a great read.

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  7. I’ve got this one on my list and am looking forward to reading it, so didn’t read the review too closely… want to form my own opinion. However, I will be back to read this when I am done to compare notes. :)

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  8. I have already read this book and I found it very funny and enjoyable. And I also liked your review (nice way to do it, brief and to the point), though to be sure, I agreed more with your praise than with your censure.

    Is it possible that one of the challenges in updating “Sense and Sensibility” to the modern era is that the original big problem the Dashwoods faced at the start of the book — loss of income and social position — cannot really be the same in 2010, because the opportunities open to women have increased so much? And that therefore Schine had to focus on the emotional aspects of her characters’ loss more than the practical ones, and that this is why they seem whiney and self-absorbed? It’s interesting, this criticism did not strike me. They just seemed… modern. But now that you point it out, I see they do deal with their problems much less bravely than the Dashwoods. A remarkable thing about the original, by comparison, is how little looking back there is. We don’t even learn Mr. Dashwood’s first name, as I recall, or anything about his personality. He’s gone; they never talk about him; his only purpose in the book seems to be to die so as to set the plot events in motion. This seems a little bit unfeeling, now that I think about it, though I have always admired Elinor’s fortitude and self-control greatly.

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    • I must agree with you regarding the challenges of transferring the story to the 21st-century.

      loss of income and social position — cannot really be the same in 2010, because the opportunities open to women have increased so much? And that therefore Schine had to focus on the emotional aspects of her characters’ loss more than the practical ones, and that this is why they seem whiney and self-absorbed? It’s interesting, this criticism did not strike me.

      It is a plausible explanation for the tone. Interesting that we came away with two different impressions. That is what is so interesting about the book. The opinions of it are left and right. The New York Times gave it a raving review, but readers were very mixed. I liked it, but it was not as good as I felt it could have been. Schine is a very talented writer and great with comedy.

      Thanks for your input.

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  9. Always love a modern retelling of any Austen, but I always thought S&S lends itself to modern adaptations. Would love to read it! Please add my name to the giveaway!

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  10. I have this book on my list to read, too! I look forward to reading it. I look forward to reading it. I wonder if after reading it I will see it as you do or differantly.

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  12. I originally left this shortly after this post was up but for some unknown reason it never appeared. Here are my thoughts…

    I liked how this book showed that Sense and Sensibility is a timeless story. In this modern day retelling the characters are a bit older than the original story…actually they’re all probably twice their age. There’s no youngest daughter this in retelling. Poor Margaret. I like how the main characters were updated but some of the minor characters made me roll my eyes. The Willoughby character is an actor, which I think is the perfect 21st century profession for him. Elinor (Annie in this book) a is library director and Edward (Frederick in this book) is a bestseller author she has speak at a library event. My one problem with this book is the ending. Let’s just say it strays from the original and I wasn’t happy with the results.

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  14. Well, Laurel Ann, I finally read your review and am not surprised at how much we agree. I did enjoy reading the book, but only on a surface level. Ah, well. That a young Jane could create such vivid characters is even more of a marvel now that I’ve finished a book based on them – Betty, Miranda and Annie are a mere shadows compared to the Dashwood ladies.

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  15. I also agree with your review. The characters were not likeable. The love interest of Annie wasn’t especially likeable either. He had none of the great qualities of Edward. There was some dry humor, but overall it was not really an enjoyable read.

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