Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

Title: The Three Weissmanns of Westport
Author: Cathleen Schine
Audiobook reader: Hillary Huber
Audio publisher: Blackstone Audio, 2010
Audio ISBN: 978-1441725189
Print publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Print ISBN: 9780374299040

This was a true pleasure, a smart, sad, funny audiobook with a great reader. The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a retelling of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. In nearly all ways, I found the updating to be true to the spirit and tone of the original book. This sort of thing is very, very often botched in current Austen retellings; here is one that gets it right. The alterations to the story have been done thoughtfully and for good reason, and they fit perfectly into the story. In other words, this is a retelling in the best of senses: the original story has been both honored and transformed.

Austen's original story is about youngish people who are about to embark on the first significant relationships of their lives. Schine's Weissmanns are in their late forties and fifties (the daughters), and their mother is in her sixties. These characters have already had had their first loves (and divorces), made their careers, and had children. To me, this is a significant, wonderful shift: I love how Schine shows us that women continue developing even after the "firsts" have been settled.

All too often in popular culture, stories end after "first love" is declared, and female protagonists often consider themselves old if they are in their thirties. In such settings, women who are over forty are either rendered invisible or consigned to set, stereotyped roles (admirable or soulless career woman; loving or cruel mother/grandmother; predatory cougar or sexually repressed nonentity). Okay, I just made a bunch of generalizations and I know that there are romances and stories for older women--but I do think there are not as many, yet, as I'd like to see. Anyway, I am so happy to have found a book that focuses on the stories, thoughts, relationships, feelings, and sexuality of women over forty. These women are not used as afterthoughts or background or sources of advice/wisdom; they are the main story.

In Jane Austen's novels, the most vividly described female-female relationships tend to be those between sisters or rivals; mothers in Austen's novels are, for the most part, either dead, distant, or used for comic relief. Motherhood is central to Schine's book, and she is particularly brilliant in her portrayal of Betty Weissmann, my favorite character. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood is loving, funny, and flighty but not wise. Mrs. Weissmann is all of those things, plus, she gets the very best lines in the novel. One I've seen quoted often is her reaction to her husband when he (at the beginning of the book) asks her for a divorce because they have irreconcilable differences; she basically tells him: Well of course there are irreconcilable differences! What does that have to do with divorce? In Sense and Sensibility, little time is spent on Mrs. Dashwood's inner life; I really enjoyed that Schine took the time to develop Betty's so thoroughly.

This is one of those books that shocks you because it's so very, very smart, funny, and sad at the same time. The intelligence and insightfulness of the author seemed so vivid to me. It was great to read about characters who've already found--and sometimes lost, or rejected, or left--"the one" and are dealing with what comes next, looking at identity, career, and relationships from a more experienced perspective.

Anyway, a million thumbs up for this audiobook; the novel is also out in a print version (cover below) and an electronic version.


  1. This book sounds great! Where did you hear about it?