“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” … Jane Austen

When Jane Austen died a spinster at 42, she left behind a fairly modest collection of work. In just six novels, she forever defined “comedy of manners” as a style, and serves as the godmother of the bulk of today’s “chick-lit.” While she took her vocation quite seriously, it’s doubtful that she could have possibly imagined the staying power of her work.

Nearly 200 years after her death, not only are Austen’s novels far more popular today than they were in her lifetime, they’ve inspired an entire genre of new fiction.  Jane Austen tribute titles range from prequels and sequels (Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, Mr. Darcy’s Daughters), alternative narratives (Willoughby’s Return), and modernizations (Bridget Jones’ Diary; Jane Austen in Scarsdale; and The Jane Austen Book Club), to horror variations (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters), and even softcore pornography (Pride and Promiscuity).

The Wall Street Journal estimates that in 2009 alone, more than three dozen Austen-inspired books were published—six times the number that the real Jane wrote in her entire life. These books range from purely derivative bodice-rippers to clever parodies. But whether or not they stand as legitimate literature on their own, they share something besides their association with the esteemed Miss A., and that’s sales.  It appears that Jane Austen’s fans, having read and reread her complete works, are eager to buy anything that continues her stories or includes their favorite characters. And for many writers, novice and experienced, the opportunity to pay homage is too tempting to pass up.

One of the latest authors to worship at the temple of Jane is Cathleen Schine. Schine is no amateur, having authored such acclaimed international best-sellers as The Love Letter, Rameau’s Niece, Alice in Bed, and She is Me. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review. Like Laurie Colwin before her, Schine is often described as a contemporary Jane Austen—although Schine is quick to disavow the comparison, explaining that “Any woman who writes a comedy of manners is compared to Jane Austen. She’s the gold standard.”

The Three Weissmanns of Westport is Schine’s retelling of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. In the original work, the Dashwood sisters and mother are exiled to a country cottage upon the death of their father. In the new work, the Weissmann sisters and mother are exiled to a Westport, Connecticut cottage upon the death of the parents’ marriage.

The opening passage of Schine’s book achieves what Jane Austen so often did in her writing. With no prologue, we gain an instant understanding of a main character and the world in which she lives.

Joseph, known as Joe to his colleagues at work but always called Joseph by his wife, 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?

But Joseph moves forward with his plans for divorce and Betty Weissmann must vacate her beloved Upper West Side apartment for the far reaches of Connecticut.

This may be the 21st century, but just as an unmarried woman could be impoverished by the death of her father in Miss Austen’s day, a married woman can still lose her financial security through divorce. At 75, Betty has lost her home and had her credit cards cut off, and will remain a pauper until she agrees to give Joseph the divorce so he can marry his “irreconcilable difference,” Felicity (or as Betty wryly calls her, Duplicity).

Betty’s grown daughters, the sober and sensible Annie (standing in for Eleanor Dashwood), and the flamboyant and sensitive Miranda (a.k.a. Marianne Dashwood), join her in a tiny, dilapidated cottage belonging to a comically generous cousin.  Sound familiar? It should.

The novel, like its predecessor, follows the romantic misadventures of the two sisters. They fall in love with the wrong men; they try to help their mother adjust to her new life; they enjoy clever conversation amid a repertory company of highly entertaining characters. Meanwhile, Schine, like Austen, makes arch observations about people and society.

The Weissmann sisters are considerably older than the Dashwoods. At first this was a surprise, but quickly made sense. Annie and Miranda have given up on finding love, just as Eleanor and Marianne are unlikely to make matches because of their reduced economic circumstances. All four are in danger of becoming old maids. But thanks to their respective authors, they’re happily mated by the time their stories end. To Schine’s credit, however, even the most faithful reader of Sense and Sensibility may be surprised by who ends up with whom.

Part of the fun of reading any of the new Austen-esque fiction is mapping out how the author has evolved the source material. There’s a satisfied “aha” whenever you recognize a familiar character or plot twist, and you tend to deconstruct the author’s choices as she departs from the original. ‘Why did she change the ending?’ you wonder.

Without giving too much away, I’ll simply say that The Three Weissmanns of Westport ends with one union Miss Austen may have considered, and another she never could have.

With the dozens of options available to Jane Austen enthusiasts, what makes this one better than most? Certainly, it’s Cathleen Schine’s marvelous use of language and witty observation. Like Austen, Schine has a rare talent for seeing the ridiculous in everyday interactions. But she doesn’t laugh out loud. She smiles, knowingly, and lets the gentle reader in on the joke without disrupting the comedy that’s unfolding.

If you’re a Jane devotee, you’ll enjoy The Three Weissmanns of Westport.  If you are interested in a clever, modern comedy of manners regardless of its origins, you’ll also enjoy it. The cover art of the book features an elegant armchair on the beach, and I cannot think of a better place to read this.

Take pleasure in it, as Jane would have.

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  • b. elliott August 3, 2010 at 10:04 am

    What a charming and literate review! I will be sure to buy this book.