Perhaps taking People magazine to heart — they once called her a “Jewish Jane Austen” — Cathleen Schine has used the plot of “Sense and Sensibility” as the starting point for her charming new novel “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
The trigger for Schine’s story is Manhattan patriarch Joseph Weissmann’s announcement that he wants a divorce from Betty, his wife of more than 50 years.
Joseph was Betty’s second husband, but he became a real father to her daughters, Miranda and Annie, who are left reeling by the news. (When the “girls” find out Joseph has taken up with a young woman they know, the anger of the Weissmann sisters escalates).
The divorce news catches Annie and Miranda at crisis points in their own middle-aged lives — the younger sister Miranda is a literary agent mired in a James Frey-like scandal with one of her memoir authors and Annie has started to accept the fact that her latest romantic hope is probably a pipe dream.
In the dispute over the divorce, Betty temporarily loses the plush Central Park West apartment she and Joseph shared and the 70ish woman takes shelter in the Westport beach cottage of a wealthy cousin. The two “girls” decide to save their pennies by moving in with mom.
“The Three Weissmanns of Westport” is less than 300 pages but Schine delivers more interesting characters — and more amusing and poignant plot developments — than you will find in most contemporary novels that are 100 pages longer.
Connecticut readers will get a special kick out of Schine’s satiric portrait of the changes Westport has undergone in recent years (the author, like Betty, lived there years ago when it was a kinder, gentler place).
In the final chapters, the writer shifts effortlessly from social comedy to tragic elements that seem so inevitable that they don’t take away from the book’s tremendous entertainment value.