by Cathleen Schine; New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages, $25
Dr. Bridges practices psychiatry in public and private settings and owns the Storyteller's Book Store, Wake Forest, North Carolina.
Cathleen Schine intends her novel to be an homage to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Many of the plot elements from the original are presented anew: a mother and two daughters banished from wealth to a modest cottage life, conflict based on status and inheritance, and action driven by hidden motives and unexpressed emotions. Included are the rain-soaked young woman in distress saved by a dashing stranger, sudden and unexplained departures, and sisters of conflicting temperaments. So, yes, the reader should recognize the original work.
Yet this is a thoroughly modern novel, and today's Austen enthusiast will have to decide whether the author honors the essence of Jane Austen. Does the presence of a celebrity such as Oprah Winfrey cancel the novel's fundamental provincial nature? And with a more explicit sexuality, although mild, and talk of gay marriage, can we still relish that quality of subtlety and understatement for our senses and sensibilities that characterizes Austen's writing?
This reviewer faults the book mostly for its brevity. With this short work there simply is not enough time for the full development of much of the interpersonal drama that exists, for example, in the conversations between Austen's Elinor and Lucy. Too much telling, and not enough showing through dialogue and interaction, fail to leave the reader breathless from the palpable fear of personal ruin.
Also, the style of writing is modern, and for the most part that is good, yet the reader does not have the experience of being absorbed into luxurious Austen-like paragraphs that, for instance, show us step by step how a rebuke may be delivered in such a way that the recipient is cast in a bad light if offense is taken.
And yet this reviewer would be greatly disappointed in himself if this review is taken as rebuke. The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a truly entertaining book that presents a crowded stage of fascinating people. Even though some of the minor characters—the forensic accountant for example—beg for more time on the page, others linger in the imagination, worthy of their ancestry. Readers who delight in interpersonal drama, please join me in my curricle.