In Cathleen Schine’s “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” — currently on The New York Times’ extended bestseller list — Jane Austen’s tale of two very different sisters, “Sense and Sensibility,” is transposed to the world of Manhattan and Connecticut Jewry. Miranda Weissman is a headstrong, romantic and a disgraced literary agent, while her practical, prim older sibling, Annie, is a librarian and divorcée. When their beloved stepfather abandons their mother, Betty, for a younger woman, and pushes her out of their Central Park West apartment, Miranda and Annie join her in self-imposed exile in a cousin’s each cottage in Westport, Conn.
There, the sisters and their mother learn lessons, large and small, about their family, themselves, romantic love and even etiquette. For example, Betty relays to her daughters the directive to always bring food when invited to a non-Jew’s house: “Just because we must respect the customs of other cultures, does not mean we have to starve,” she explains.
The Sisterhood’s Sarah Seltzer spoke recently with Schine about finding the perfect Jewish last name for her characters, fighting the crowds at Manhattan’s Fairway market, and Jane Austen’s legacy, beyond “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
The Sisterhood: Where did you get the idea to transpose Austen to Jews in the Northeast? It seems like something that should have been done long ago.
Cathleen Shine: I was reading “Sense and Sensibility,” which I’ve read hundreds of times. I revere Jane Austen. But I was also puzzled and thinking, “Why does this book feel so modern when the whole premise of it is an obsolete English law?” — the law of primogeniture, the idea that the estate passes to nearest male heir. I realized I was equating it with divorce in my mother’s generation — divorce for older women who’ve been brought up to just be married, to be supported and are suddenly on their own with no preparation for it. The novel being set in this kind of secular Jewish family really has to do with the fact that that’s my territory, that’s who I live with, who I know, what makes me laugh, what makes me interested.
One parallel between Regency England and the Upper West Side today is the importance of real estate.
I imagine that’s true in the U.S., right now across the board. There’s also the attachment to your home as a kind of place that represents your family. As Jews certainly know, your family can move from country to country. Maybe there is a deep Jewish connection to the sense of dislocation that [the Weissmans] have when they move to Westport.
How did you come up with the name “Weissmann”?
I knew I wanted this book to be set in Westport so it had to be “the somethings of Westport.” I wanted a Jewish sounding last name. In the past I’ve always used names that can go either way, and in my last book [“The New Yorkers”], I didn’t use any last names because I wanted characters not to be identified with ethnic ties. This time, I really had this urge to have a real, recognizable Jewish name. I wanted it to start with a W. So I went online and began looking up Jewish last names that start with a “W.” Soon enough I was looking up populations of all these different shtetls, in Russia and Poland. It was crazy, fun irrelevant research. I read about how Jews were assigned and chose last names. I found lots of lots of names, none of which was right. Finally the name just came. “The Three Weissmans of Westport.”
I know you have a personal connection to Westport.
I moved there when I was one. I lived there my whole childhood life. I went to school there, I went to high school there. I really loved it as a child. It was an idyllic place to be a young child, with a great deal of freedom. We really ran wild everywhere around our neighborhood, a gang of little kids, off in the woods with our dogs. I was also a teenager there, which was nightmarish, although that might be the case everywhere. When I was older and had small kids we went back there every summer and stayed at my mother’s. Now I go back once in a while.
I do notice that every time I leave New York. Going to Fairway in particular, when I come home after shopping there, I think I really have to have a drink, a tranquilizer or something. It’s so intense, no matter how much bigger it gets. You know it used to be these tiny, bent over little Jewish ladies with canes poking everyone, pushing through the aisles. It’s just not possible they are still the same ladies — I’ve lived here for 30 years — but they’re still there. Plus now you have these intense yuppies and foodies going through. Everyone looks insane, everyone is just driven. It’s an exhausting experience. Then you go to Westport, and the aisles are as wide as a 3-lane highway. It’s quiet, you push your cart through and ogle, you can’t believe the amount of stuff and how big it is. But finally you have to load the car. I just kept thinking,”Poor Betty, out there in the wilds of the suburbs having to load and unload the trunk when she was used to having stuff delivered to her nice doorman.”
I loved the Weissmans traditional celebration of Christmas. Their stepfather tells them: “This holiday celebrates the birth of a man in whose name an entire religion has persecuted and murdered our people for thousands of years … knowing that, why should we let them have all the fun?” Did that anecdote come from real life or did you make it up?
Christmas is one of the main holidays in my household. It’s a little bit odd. When I was a kid we celebrated Christmas. My father didn’t particularly like it. My grandparents were just disgusted. My mother would send us out to buy a tree, and my grandfather would be furious. Still, we appropriated it as our own family holiday and had such a good time. When I had my own kids, I could understand better my parents’ and grandparents’ ambivalence. I really thought, “let’s understand what we’re doing, but let’s do it anyway,” so that speech comes from me. My kids would look at me with wide eyes, then we’d put on the Nutcracker suite and just start to dance.
In “Sense and Sensibility,” Austen clearly wants us to see the story from Elinor’s perspective. Do you have a sister you more strongly identify with?
In “Sense and Sensibility,” the author identifies with Elinor, and the reader does, too, to a certain extent. In my book I became more and more interested in the mother, Betty, who’s a very minor character in “Sense and Sensibility.” I found Betty and her predicament more and more compelling. In that way it differed tremendously from Sense and Sensibility.” There are some things I have [the character based on Elinor] Annie do, like stay up at night worrying about the bills, which are hideously reminiscent of my own life. But it really didn’t have that autobiographical pull that some books do.
You recently wrote an essay about “Austenolatry.” Will Jane Austen mania ever die out or is it here to stay?
I don’t know if there will even be books in the future — things are changing so fast. But there’s something compelling about Jane Austen’s understanding of families: the combination of domestic life and the sense of urgency about money and financial issues and the commerce of marriage. I think people experience that in different ways in different times but there’s something that perseveres. This particular wave of Austenolatry is huge and very energetic. Like any wave it will calm down a bit, and some other literary fad will emerge.
But, do I think Jane Austen will disappear into recesses of forgotten literature? Until this type of novel disappears, I don’t think she will either. She invented it; she perfected it.
Interview cut, for clarity only.