Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has not inspired nearly as many movie adaptations, sequels, or retellings as her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice; but Cathleen Schine’s latest book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, makes up for the lack of quantity with quality. Judged merely on its literary merits, the novel is a little lacking; the pacing is slow, and the characters are sometimes two-dimensional. But as a reimagining of the story of the Dashwood sisters, their mother, and their lovers, it is as faithful as a devoted Austen fan could want.
Updated to present-day America, set in New York City, Westport, Connecticut, and Palm Springs, California, the Dashwood family is now the Weissmann family. Older sister Elinor, quiet and practical, is Annie, a library director. Younger sister Marianne, headstrong and emotional, is Miranda, a literary agent. One major change is that all the characters are older than in Austen’s story; Annie is 52, Miranda is 49, and their mother, Betty, is 75. When Betty’s husband of 48 years dumps her for another woman, the three Weissmann women retreat from their elegant New York apartments to share a tiny cottage in Westport, owned by their gregarious cousin Lou. Here, Annie pines for Frederick Barrows, a distinguished author; Miranda falls for Kit Maybanks, a dashing young actor; and Betty tries to put her life back in order.
For Austen fans, the fun comes in recognizing the new incarnations of various characters. All of the important plot developments occur just when they are supposed to, which makes the book rather predictable, but comforting in its familiarity. The only notable deviations from Austen’s plot come at the end in some surprising twists, but I thought those changes actually worked well, and give the story a satisfying finish. I also enjoyed Schine’s evocative similes (“[Betty’s lawyers] seemed to find the law a constantly surprising series of impediments, as if they were crossing rocky desert terrain for the first time and had forgotten their shoes.”); and I found her to be most poignant in her depictions of parent-child relationships. All in all, this is a book that will mainly appeal to fans of Austen’s original, but it has enough inventiveness to stand on its own as mildly entertaining chick-lit.