THE THREE WEISMANNS
OF WESTPORT, by Cathleen Schine. Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 292 pp., $25.
One hundred ninety-three years after her death, Jane Austen is still generating books - it's just that now the books are written by other people. None is better suited to the challenge than Cathleen Schine, whose clever highbrow chick lit ("The New Yorkers," "The Love Letter") has long reminded people of Austen. In "The Three Weissmanns of Westport," Schine takes her cue directly from "Sense and Sensibility," transplanting the reasonable sister, the drama-queen sister, their dear mama and all their troubles with love and money to contemporary Connecticut. The operation is a success - the story is fun to read on its own, and the twists and updates on the original add another layer of mischief.
The trouble starts when 75-year-old Joseph Weissmann abandons his wife, Betty, for a conniving woman in his office named Felicity Barrow, "although Betty referred to her, pretending she could not remember the correct name, sometimes as Pleurisy, more often as Duplicity." At Duplicity's urging, Joseph evicts his spouse from their Central Park West apartment, and Betty is forced to move to a beach cottage in Westport offered by her magnanimous Cousin Lou. Betty's daughters, who have separately fallen into desperate financial straits, leave their New York digs and join her.
The older one, Annie, is "Sense" - a librarian who could have been an accountant, secretly pining for the famous author with whom she had a magical one-night stand. Will you be surprised, reader, when I tell you he is Felicity Barrow's brother and comes with a full complement of annoying adult children and dopey groupies? The younger daughter, Miranda, is "Sensibility" - a literary agent whose high-profile memoirist clients have dragged her through the mud all the way to Oprah with their lies. "First, Rudy Lake, whose bestselling, wrenching prison memoir had won him parole for the murder of his first wife, turned out to have plagiarized the better part of his book from an obscure Hungarian novel of the 1950s; then the elusive Bongo Ffrancis turned out to be a middle-aged Midwestern housewife, not the 17-year-old Welsh heroin addict his memoir had described. . . . "
The sharp-edged satire and the lowdown slapstick of the book (no chapter is complete without an outburst from the senile Mr. Shpuntov, who mistakes his daughter for a plumber and whose nap is broadcast via baby monitor) act as a foil for its warm emotional center, the relationship between Betty and her daughters. Annie's continual worry over Miranda, whose impulsivity leads her into a pathetic cougar situation with a fey young actor, feels very real. Perhaps especially to this reviewer, who is the object of similar romantic watchdogging from her own sibling. Is every pair of sisters Sense and Sensibility? I guess that's what gives the idea legs.
On which topic, Cousin Lou should have the last word: " 'Beautiful,' he murmured now, meaning the wine, its legs, the word 'legs,' legs of all kinds, the room, the people in it drinking wine, and always, the view of the water, over which an enormous harvest moon rose in slow, round, orange motion."