The Three Weissmanns of Westport

If you have not read Sense and Sensibility, you would still be able to read The Three Weissmanns of Westport and receive some enjoyment, but I can't quite imagine that it's equaled to those who know its inspiration. Cathleen Schine's adaptation is much more than a modernization (and believe me, I've read a few), to the point where it actually does merit the word "homage" as opposed to an author simply fiddling with the calendar and fashion. The spirit of the novel comes through crystal clear, even when the plotlines deviate from the original, making Schine an author who actually understands Austen's observational wit and develops her own humorous attention to detail in the modern sense.

In Schine's novel, instead of a new widow with an entailment on the estate forcing her and her daughters from their home, Mrs. Betty Weissmann is shocked and surprised when her husband asks for a divorce after nearly fifty years of marriage. Unaware of another (younger) woman in the wings (who works under him at the office), Betty Weissmann and her two grown daughters (named Anne and Miranda, who are not Joseph Weissmann's daughters biologically, but were raised by the man and he looks upon them as his own) immediately insist he get a brain scan, believing a medical issue to be at the root of his request. When the reality sets in, Anne and Miranda realize that it doesn't matter the age at which one becomes a child of divorce, it's heart-wrenching no matter what. Betty copes by speaking of Joseph as though he's already dead, inserting "may he rest in peace" after his name and calling herself a widow. Anne is in her fifties and raised two boys as a single mother (her husband took off early and never had anything to do with his sons after that); she is a librarian, though is quietly noted for running a well-respected series of literary events through her Upper West Side library. Miranda is a famous literary agent whose star is about to explode in scandal as several of her "Awful Authors," are now being unmasked as never having experienced the terrible things their memoirs recount. The ultimate shame (a disapproving look from Oprah on her own show) is cast upon Miranda and she is dealing with the fallout from her career and failing agency while her mother deals with the divorce. As a result, Miranda and Betty think it's a brilliant idea for both sisters to move in with their mother and to take up their cousin's offer of a small seaside bungalow on Long Island. Anne is not quite so convinced, but as the two women together would never be able to budget for themselves (as both Miranda and Betty's assets have frozen due to divorce/bankruptcy), Anne sublets her apartment and the three decamp to Westport.

It turns out their cousin is a bit of a collector of humanity, insisting every stray soul is "like family," so there is no shortage of odd characters to entertain at the cousin's lavish dinners and parties. (This includes his wife's dottering father whose outbursts are enough to surprise any reader into laughter.) While Anne commutes in to work on the train, Miranda decides to take up kayaking as a hobby... resulting in her near drowning and then rescue by Kit, a young actor with a two-year-old-son named Henry staying with an aunt who doesn't particularly like them. As Miranda falls in love with Kit (or is it Henry?), she remains oblivious to the attentions of a somewhat reserved and semi-retired attorney. Anne, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Frederick Barrow, a successful author introduced to her by his sister, the Vice President in Joseph's company (and, incidentally, the woman for whom Joseph has left Betty). Given their sporadic meetings and his children's somewhat jealous demands on his time, Anne and Frederick are hardly together long enough for anything to blossom and Anne remains filled with silent longing.

Those looking for an exact modernization of Sense and Sensibility will be disappointed, as will those who believe any such nonsense that Schine has totally captured the feel of Austen. She does, however, have a clear sympathy and understanding for Austen's work, and by placing her story in present time, is an excellent example of our modern desire for Austen's stories in our lives. Schine, however, does not feel tied to the exact storylines and so changes are made to better fit the lives of her own characters... and perhaps to express a secret question in the hearts of many Austen-lovers as to what if the story had taken a slight turn. (Note that I say "question" and not "desire," as I could never hope that things ended a different way in actual Sense and Sensibility.)

I usually do not really develop intensely clear visual images of characters in books, but for some reason, I had The Three Weissmanns of Westport quite clearly cast -- and almost everyone was the result of having appeared in a prior Jane Austen film adaptation. The impeccable Gemma Jones was very clearly Mrs. Betty Weissmann (part Mrs. Dashwood and part Bridget Jones's mum) and Emma Thompson was a very obvious Anne (though she is a bit young for the Anne/Elinor depicted here). Alan Rickman reprised his Colonel Brandon role as the reserved attorney and Ciaran Hinds came in to play the updated Edward (whose name was Frederick in this novel and so clearly he came over from Persuasion). The spirit of Juliet Stevenson was everywhere and I'm not sure I ever pinned her down entirely (save, perhaps as a narratorial voice, as she deftly handles biting wit so very well). Miranda was the sole character I couldn't quite cast... my mind cast about for a version of Naomi Watts who was a little older, a little less immediately identifiable as every man's dream, and a little more capable of being laughed at.

Ultimately, I can understand purists who seethe at this novel for deviating so much from Sense and Sensibility, but I persist in seeing this as a better-than-average example of a Jane Austen modernization, which shows that Austen's themes are still quite pertinent to today's world. One might argue that in today's world, women were much more dependent and much less capable of making their own way in the world, so the troubles of the Weissmann women hardly compare to the very real dangers facing a widow and her penniless daughters, but there's also a flip side to this when actions within this storyline have harsher consequences than the similar storyline in S&S. Schine hits the mark more than once in exploring her parallel plot and I have to say that I really appreciated Schine's ending as it fit her own characters. (Well, I like the Anne bit at least; the Miranda character was always a bit annoying and her storyline started straying into some somewhat silly territory in my opinion.)

If you enjoyed Sense and Sensibility and think that you can relinquish hold on the exact plot details, then you'll likely appreciate The Three Weissmanns of Westport. Certainly if you're looking to find a decent Austenuation, this is quite a few cuts above the average chick lit modernizations -- it's not simply focused on romance and fluff. There are a few slow bits and one or two rather absurd moments, but Schine's humor carries the story in this exploration of loss, heartbreak, and moving on.

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