February 2010

Austen city limits

Interview by
“Any woman who writes a comedy of manners is compared to Jane Austen. She’s the gold standard.”
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Ambient city sounds—horns, sirens—provide a fitting soundtrack for a recent conversation with Cathleen Schine, a New Yorker who has written so astutely about the lives of other New Yorkers. She does it yet again in her new novel, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that tells the story of three urbanites in exile, and the cast of characters in their orbit.

During the interview, Schine, also the author of The Love Letter and The New Yorkers, makes a frank confession: “This is very unfashionable to say, but I read for comfort a lot of times. That sounds very old-fashioned, but that’s my dirty little secret.” Her readers can take comfort in the fact that she’s created another ensemble novel that, though sad at times, is also entertaining and diverting.

Other facts one might be surprised to learn about this prolific author: She’s partial to terriers (and presently owns a Cairn); before becoming a writer, she studied to be a Medievalist; and she didn’t read Jane Austen until well into adulthood. “I’m very unusual among novelists in that I didn’t read Austen until I was an adult,” she says. But when she did, “It was an incredible revelation.”

Asked about being dubbed by critics as a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen, a moniker she’s flattered by but reluctant to claim, Schine responds, “I’ve been writing for 25 years. That was written about me when I was quite a bit younger, but I’ve noticed that any woman who writes a comedy of manners is always in some way compared to Jane Austen. She’s the gold standard.”

The Three Weissmanns of Westport will, of course, invite comparisons to Sense and Sensibility, but Schine insists, “It’s somewhere between a theft and an homage, but what it’s not is an appropriation or a comparison. That, I know better. Jane Austen is an inspiration to anybody who writes a comedy of manners because she practically invented it.”

Schine’s story begins when 78-year-old Joseph Weissmann decides to divorce Betty, his wife of 48 years, citing “irreconcilable differences” (read: another woman). The genuinely perplexed Betty replies, “Irreconcilable differences? . . . Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce?”

Approaching grave subjects with levity is Schine’s trademark. “For me, it’s just the way I experience the world. It’s a good survival mechanism,” she says. In the past, she’s leaned more heavily towards comedy, but feels that “this book is sadder, more serious, a bit emotionally darker than other things I’ve written.” Though that may be true, she strikes a balance between pathos and humor. Let’s just say that if The Three Weissmanns of Westport were a movie, Nora Ephron would direct it. Or if it were a food, it would be some kind of chocolate-covered pretzel concoction—a little salty, a little sweet.

Schine has said elsewhere, “Families are funny and adultery is funny; families are tragic and adultery is tragic. Love just complicates everything that much more.” In The Three Weissmanns of Westport, she explores love in its many forms—maternal, romantic and filial.

As the world she knows unravels, Betty’s daughters—the passionate Miranda, a famous literary agent, and the more subdued Annie, a sensible library director—rally around her in support. Forced out of her elegant New York apartment by her husband’s mistress, Betty, joined by her girls, takes refuge in her cousin Lou’s cramped, run-down beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut. As they mingle with suburban socialites, they discover love in unexpected places—and truths about themselves and each other.

Schine describes the process of writing this novel as a dynamic experience, a kind of call and response between her book and Austen’s. “It’s partly my being caught up by the narrative of Sense and Sensibility and partly my own story and characters, sometimes pushing toward that and sometimes pulling away from that. . . . It was kind of like a dialogue. For me, reading and writing have a lot in common. So there was a lot of communication with the characters,” she says, adding, “All apologies to Jane Austen, of course.”

What appeals most to Schine about Austen’s work is that, though written two centuries ago, it still resonates with readers today. “So much of it feels so alive,” she says. She found herself asking, what in modern-day society approximates that? What is the equivalent?

She also wanted to write about “women who’ve lived a certain way whose whole lives have been pulled out from under them.”

“I know women to whom that has happened,” she says. Schine, like Austen, is particularly interested in the ways in which, even today, women depend on marriage to ensure social standing and economic security.

In writing this novel, Schine found herself returning time and again to the relationship between Betty and her daughters. Schine, who’s very close to her own mother, says, “I love writing about mothers and daughters and mothers and sons. That’s one of the things I found when I was writing this, that the mother took on a much more important and central role in my story; that’s one way in which it really veered from Sense and Sensibility.” Most poignant, perhaps, is the way Schine describes the awakening of Miranda’s maternal instincts after she meets a winsome toddler named Henry (the son of her new lover). “It’s hard to write about kids without it being sentimental,” says Schine. But she does it, drawing on her own experience of raising two boys.

Asked if she would ever write a memoir, Schine says she finds she can come closer to the truth when writing fiction. “Also, it’s just more fun for me,” she adds. “Part of the fun of writing is finding out what’s going to happen next.” Her ultimate goal, she says, is to create recognizable characters and a story that rings true to life. She does both in The Three Weissmanns of Westport, her lambent wit flickering across each page like moonlight on the waters of Westport.

Katherine Wyrick writes from Little Rock.

Get the Book

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

By Cathleen Schine
Farrar, Straus
ISBN 9780374299040

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