Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How Did the Book Club Go? The In-Store Lit Group Discusses Cathleen Schine's "The Three Weissmanns of Westport" (Plus My New Favorite Hobby, Which is Searching for International Editions).

This month the in-store lit group discussed The Three Weissmanns of Westport. So here's the story. Betty and Joe (Josie to the family) Weissmann separate after fifty years (no, 48!) of marriage. Joe is leaving for a better life, and that life includes Felicity, his vice president of online sales. Joe wants to be generous to his wife and two stepkids, Annie and Miranda, and if he has to cut off their finances so they'll leave their deluxe apartment in the Upper West Side (so much nicer than Felicity's Lincoln Towers abode with the now-blocked view), well, it's all for their own good. The taxes are killer! (American paperback jacket at right--replacing a comfy chair incongruously place in a beach setting. I like the cloth jacket better, but they share a style).

Miranda got her own problems. She's an agent, and it appears that the memoir meltdown has hit her hard. In fact, she's represented so many frauds that Oprah herself has taken her to task. Her sister Annie's life is a bit more dull, coordinating author appearances for a private library, but things are looking up in the dating department, when Frederick Barrow, Felicity's sister, shows some romantic interest in her. He seems like a good catch, kind of.

Then Cousin Lou makes an offer for them to all move into a cottage he owns in Westport. Betty will have a place to live, Miranda can escape from the bad publicity, and Annie can still commute to work. Things continue to get more complicated, with several younger lovers, a little complicated scheming to get a hold of money, and a lot of misunderstandings. (Note how the Brits added a woman at the beach--who is that? I think she's too young for anyone in this book except for the house sitter. Not a fan.)

Most of you know that the story is modeled on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility with Miranda standing in for Marianne and Annie being a modern-day Elinor. Instead of a death causing a loss of fortune, it's divorce. We had some disagreement over whether Sense and Sensibility was worth remaking at all, with one attendee proclaiming it was her worst book and another saying it was her best. The person who said it was the worst (S.) also noted that Schine had fixed an ending that never seemed to work for her.  (The French deluxe paperback jacket, which is equivalent to our hardcover. The paperback was more playful, with beach umbrellas. I'm not sure it would work in an American cover, but I do like this--so French!)

We all decided this book is about age, and interestingly enough, the only one of the dozen of us who didn't really like it was by far the youngest person present. First of all, you have two sisters trying to find love who are probably a generation above Austen's heroines, if not almost two generations. Then you have the numerous lopsided-in-age relationships. There's Joe and Felicity, Annie and her older beau, Miranda and her younger one, Kit Maybrook, and the competitor for Annie's affection is the even younger Maggie, what I call the homewrecker housesitter. Schine seems interested in our own sense of relevance as we age, N. thought. She was probably the most exuberant about this story and I was not totally surprised, as she loves a book with a lot of literary allusions, and that was the case here.

I noted to J. that here was a book where the daughters seemed to have a good relationship with their Mom. J. duly noted that I was correct, but later on when she learned the author was older than she originally thought, the actual argument turned out to be that younger women writers seem to have problems with mothers.

J. noted that Annie's relationship with her sons, and her thoughts on the matter seemed so true, so it was particularly surprising that she got the age of the author wrong. But deception is a very important part of the book, with a lot of lovers creating some large falsehoods. The most egegious case is of course Miranda's clients, also known as the awful authors, but there's also Felicity rewriting Josie and Betty's relationship and some quite brazen identity appropriation. (Note the German cover is close in title and style to the paperback, with only the more appropriate beach chair substituting for the more fish-out-of-water stuffed chair. They lost the joke!)

There was some grumbling about Betty's perceived helplessness. Of course, she was fighting for her own relevance, and at least at first was coming from a perspective of less knowledge (Joe had Felicity in her court) and being blindsided. She was also being, in her own way, selfless, which is another recurring thing in The Three Weissmanns of Westport. Who is self-centered, who is selfish, who is selfless? Can one be more than one at the same time? (Spanish language cover, on the other hand, kept the armchair joke but reworked the title to get rid of that Weissmann name. I wonder if they even kept it in the body of the book. Yes they did.)

I'm guessing that this book was Ms. Schine's biggest sales success in hardcover, hitting the top ten of The New York Times fiction list for several weeks. Dominique Browning was a big fan of the book, with her enthusiastic review featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. I would say the naysayer seems to be Adam Kirsch, whose review in Tablet magazine seemed to make it's way around the web, to The New Republic and then being reprinted verbatim on a Jane Austen website.

Kirsch didn't seem to like the Jewish angle on the story, thinking it an improper updating of the landed gentry. I don't know--has Kirsch hung around wealthy Jews much? But I think the problem is that the homage to Austen was taking by a lot of JASNA people way too seriously. You just look at the review websites and all these people complaining "this is no Jane Austen!"  I had a similar discussion with our own Jane when we hosted Mary Robinette Kowal. There are a lot of purists out there. (Polish jacket at right. I think the women's feet are too young and I'm never a fan of the cut off body part.)

Hey, modern writers would play off of other books if we'd only fix copyright laws. Right now, everything past 1923 is off limits unless it's satire. But this will not be an issue for her next book, Fin & Lady, which of course we're featuring at a Boswell event on Monday, July 22, because I have no idea what she was channelling there. I'll soon find out.

For more book clubbish type discussion, here are a list of questions on the Reading Group Guides website. Next up we discuss Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone on Monday, August 4, 7 pm. Our September selection is E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, a timely discussion before the Milwaukee Rep production. Due to the Labor Day holiday, we'll be meeting on Tuesday, September, September 3, 7 pm. (And finally, that's the Italian cover at left. The only cover that tried to interpret what this cottage amidst newly renovated and rebuilt mansions might look like. I don't mind the people in this one, because they are so far away).

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