Betty and Joseph Weissmann have been married for fifty years. They've lived a lovely life, full of art and parties and books, in a beautiful and well-appointed apartment in New York. There they raised their two daughters--technically Betty's daughters, but Joseph (or Josie, as the girls call him) has been their dad since they were toddlers--Annie, a librarian, and Miranda, a literary agent. The Weissmanns are happy. What a surprise, then, when Joseph announces that he intends to divorce Betty. "'Irreconcilable differences,' Joseph said. 'Oh, Joseph. What does that have to do with divorce?'" But there is another woman (a fact of which Betty does not become explicitly aware for some time after Joseph's announcement, although when she calls to tell Miranda the news, "He is in love," her daughter states bluntly, and "I'm afraid he must be," Betty responds). Yes, at seventy-eight Joseph has fallen in love again. She, the other woman, Felicity, suggests that it might be best if Joseph ask Betty to leave their lovely apartment, which he does. On the advice of his lawyers, he cuts off Betty's access to their credit cards and their bank accounts.
Luckily, Cousin Lou, a big-hearted open-armed product of Ellis Island immigration, offers the use of his cottage in Westport, for as long as Betty needs it. Miranda having just suffered a James Frey caliber humiliation at the hands of Oprah, decides she and Annie must also move to Westport with their mother, and so they become the three Weissmanns of Westport. The women--for the girls are really fifty years old--gather up most of the fine furniture, paintings, linens and table settings from the New York apartment, and set up housekeeping in the small, musty, somewhat ramshackle beach house on the shore of Long Island Sound. They visit and meet people. They attempt to live within their means, or rather, Annie--the sensible one--attempts to corral the other two's spending. But Miranda, who is passionate and headstrong, wants what she wants, and Betty has never known anything else, so Annie's efforts--though always well intentioned and often funny--are mostly for naught.
The Three Weissmanns of Westport is in many ways (some quite explicit, although I would be hard-pressed in my ignorance to point them out) an homage to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. But although I don't know my Austen very well, I do know a beautifully written, deeply felt, fully realized novel when I read one. Further, Cathleen Schine has accomplished something very difficult to pull off, which is to produce a domestic comedy--no, it's not chick lit--which is both hilarious and tender, sharp and sweet, and always, in all ways, intelligent. As the women learn to live with their new situations--Betty, as a self-proclaimed "widow" (it makes it easier to grieve for what she's lost and then to move on), Annie and Miranda as the children of divorce (albeit at a relatively advanced age)--the reader laughs, despairs, and rejoices with them.
This book, which is due out in paperback next week, is a natural for book groups, and that makes me happy. It makes me happy because it is a wonderful book, which is ripe for discussion at any number of different levels. It makes me happy because it will probably send its readers (like me, who has Sense and Sensibility queued up for a reread) off in search of Austen and Alcott and Dickinson and other lovely and intelligent lady writers of generations past. And it makes me happy because it will surely grow Cathleen Schine's readership, both for this novel and, with any luck, for her rich backlist.