Jewish Jane Austen

A classic novel, reimagined

In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen begins with a comedic negotiation between husband and wife about what share of his recently deceased father’s estate he should bestow upon his otherwise penniless stepmother and step-sisters. With The Three Weissmanns of Westport (FSG, $25), Catherine Schine brings this scene forward two hundred years, reenacted by a seventy-eight year old man and his young mistress discussing the terms of the divorce the husband will negotiate with his wife of forty-eight years. And thus Schine commences her own diverting yet trenchant observations of a present-day family of Jewish New Yorkers with the kind of knowing, alternately sympathetic and mocking detail expected of all Austen imitators.

The three abandoned women are Betty Weissmann, a seventy-five year-old homemaker, and her middle-aged daughters Annie, a solitary librarian with two grown sons, and Miranda, a literary agent being sued into bankruptcy; their savior is Cousin Lou, a wealthy, big-hearted man orphaned by the Holocaust who offers them his ramshackle beach house in Westport when Betty’s husband’s mistress convinces Mr. Weissmann to force her out of their apartment. Once this “Joad family” embarks upon their “neo-Depression life,” Betty ostentatiously mourns her very much alive husband, Annie pines for the brother of the woman she doesn’t yet know to be “the irreconcilable difference” that wrecked her mother’s marriage, and Miranda falls for a divorced younger man with a young son. All of the characters and situations of Sense and Sensibility are thus reassuringly present and cleverly updated.

And yet, Schine reminds us early on that we are in a much meaner world than Austen’s genteel society. Cousin Lou’s frequently recurring story about the anti-Semitic WASP who helped sink the Congressional bill that would have rescued many more European refugee children like him reminds the reader that for all the inheritance laws and class differences that circumscribed the lives of Austen’s heroines, they never had to deal with divorce and bankruptcy lawyers, forensic accountants, faked pregnancies, compulsive liars, and even Merkin-like swindlers. The prosperity of the Weissmanns and their Jewish friends and neighbors represents the overthrow of the old order, but so does this general lack of boundaries, or even the veneer of politesse.

Schine embraces her modern setting in its entirety, and her story is all the more satisfying because she is unafraid to follow her characters and their situations where they naturally want to go, even when they depart from the source — most especially with the women’s suitors. By being less true to the original narrative, Schine is more faithful to the spirit of Austen.

Ultimately, it’s Schine’s mature heroines, in sharp contrast to their young predecessors, who form the key revelation of this adaptation. These seasoned women, embarking on second and third chapters of their lives, ultimately demonstrate independence and resilience that are a far cry from what Austen’s time afforded. Annie, Miranda, and Betty want partners, but ultimately don’t require them for survival. Their renaissance is thrillingly on their own terms.

Tammy Hepps is a software developer living in New York City.