By Bruce Jacobs

“The Three Weissmanns of Westport”
By Cathleen Schine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($25.00, 292 pp.)

Miranda, one of the three Weissmann women in Cathleen Schine’s new novel, runs a one-woman literary agency specializing in the memoirs of the woe-is-me crowd. They are a needy bunch requiring lots of attention, and Miranda jokingly refers to them as her “Awful Authors.” Every one “had always overcome something ghastly and lurid, something so ghastly and lurid they had to write a ghastly and lurid book recounting every detail of their mortification and misery.”

When the world discovers that several indeed live quite normal lives, lawsuits, talk show exposes, and internet chatter ensue and Miranda’s business, income, and credibility are gone. As if that were not bad enough, her parents are getting divorced after 50 years and Miranda finds herself living with her mother and sister in a small cottage in Westport, Connecticut.

It was not exactly an idyllic marriage, but in the mind of Betty Weissmann, it was at least a satisfactory one.  Her husband Joseph was infatuated with a younger woman (ironically named Felicity), but preferred the gentler excuse of “irreconcilable differences,” about which Betty muses, “Of course there are irreconcilable differences.  What on earth does that have to do with divorce?”

Betty and Joseph have lived in their large Central Park West apartment long enough that their initial $5000 investment is worth millions, but Felicity has her eye on the place. On his lawyer’s advice, Joseph “evicts” his wife.  She is taken under wing by her wealthy Cousin Lou who offers her free occupancy of the small beach front cottage in Westport which he is holding vacant for future “beautification” (i.e. a teardown).  With bankrupt daughter Miranda in tow, Betty leaves the city with a few precious belongings and moves to the suburbs.

Not one to leave her sister and mother destitute and ashamed, their librarian sister and daughter Annie decides to sublet her flat, move in with them in Westport, and commute to the city for her work.  They would need her:  “Annie was far better at worrying in general, and worrying about money was one of her specialties…the nonprofit world seeming to take its mandate seriously and to apply it rigorously to its employees.”   And so Schine sets up this contemporary version of “Sense and Sensibility” mashed up with “Little Women”…but her novel is so much better and more than that.

As the Weissmanns acclimate to their new small town life with their intractable personalities banging into each other in the little cottage, Schine indulges her fine-tuned ear for what unfairly is often called “domestic comedy.”  Cousin Lou throws frequent parties, but Westport is not New York.  Betty is bored.  A friend notes:  “If you have to be in exile, you could do worse;” upon which she reflects, “How lucky to have friends who understand what she meant rather than what she said.”

In order to escape further into her own thoughts, Miranda buys herself a kayak “which was a bright, shiny red.  Miranda’s life vest was orange, and the black of the clingy kayaking clothes she’d gotten contrasted nicely, giving the whole, according to an admiring Betty, the appearance of a tropical fish.”  Hopelessly impractical, she nearly drowns in high waves in her first voyage only to be rescued “by a God with the imagination to drop her into the embrace of an Adonis.”  And thus she falls giddily in love with a divorced, unemployed actor twenty years her junior.

Even the ever-practical Annie has her own romance with a much older famous poet who comes to read at a Library function and sweeps a whole room full of women off their feet.  They were women “like the lost boys of Africa, but they were not boys, they were women, older women, still beautiful in their older way, still vibrant in their older way, with their beauty and vibrancy suddenly accosted by the one thing beauty and vibrancy cannot withstand – irrelevance.”

Schine brings a great deal of humor to this whirl of late life romance, despair, and stubborn hope.  The Weissmanns, despite their own sparring, are a loyal family quick to support each other as they navigate a growing cast of characters disengaging and attaching to their lives.  Her plot takes many twists, throwing up equal moments of sober loneliness (“‘I feel like I’m buried alive,’ Miranda said one morning.”) and their witty rebuttals (“‘Better than being buried dead,’ said Betty.”).

Betty’s divorce makes its way through the courts, Miranda’s young lover heads for a Hollywood role in the soaps, Annie’s poet doesn’t call back, but life goes on in Westport.  It is not, however, the life any of them had expected or imagined in their youthful dreams.

Annie might be speaking for all three of them:  “Her life struck her as a mistake, not in a big, violent way, but as a simple error, as if she had thought she was supposed to bear left at an intersection when she should have taken a sharp left, and had drifted slowly, gradually, into the wrong town, the wrong state, the wrong country.”

“The Three Weissmanns of Westport” makes its own gradual way off course from its historical antecedents into a very contemporary landscape of choice and happenstance, but unlike Miranda’s “Awful Authors,” Schine writes not to fabricate a world so bad that surviving becomes a triumph, but to imagine lives which, even as they draw to an end, find opportunities for hope…and if not happiness, at least humor and goodwill.

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