New Finds

Distress in Westport

Beauty fades when it confronts irrelevance.

Book Cover I know novelist Cathleen Schine (The New Yorkers) to be a talented and amusing writer, but somehow I have never been attracted to her stories. Her new novel, The Three Weissmanns of Westport (FSG), is reportedly an homage to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility—which makes me wonder what one misses if Austen’s classic has not been part of one’s literary diet.

Not much, I would reckon, except for the smug intellectual games one may play when one has such information in hand. The Three Weissmans gives us Annie and Miranda, two sisters, and Betty, their 75-year-old mother, who has been thrown aside by her 78-year-old husband for a younger woman, and then evicted from their Manhattan apartment by her successor—thus the Weissman women repair to the cushy seaside town of Westport, C.T. Their new accommodations are not so cushy.

The Weissmans’ story begins:
When Joseph Weissmann divorced his wife, he was seventy-eight years old and she was seventy-five. He announced his decision in the kitchen of their apartment on the tenth floor of a large, graceful Central Park West building built at the turn of the last century, the original white tiles of the kitchen still gleaming on the walls around them. Joseph, known as Joe to his colleagues at work but always called Joseph by his wife, said the words “irreconcilable differences,” and saw real confusion in his wife’s eyes.

Irreconcilable differences? she said. Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What on earth does that have to do with divorce?

In Joe’s case it had very little to do with divorce. In Joe’s case, as is so often the case, the reason for the divorce was a woman. But a woman was not, unsurprisingly, the reason he gave his wife.

Irreconcilable differences?
The New Yorker’s short review is spot on: “The ironic title—the three are anything but wise men—does little justice to Schine’s real wit, which playfully probes the lies, self-deceptions, and honorable hearts of her characters.”
“Irreconcilable differences,” Joe said.

“Oh, Joseph. What does that have to do with divorce?”

“I want to be generous,” Joe said.

Generous? she thought. It was as if she were the maid and she was being fired. Would he offer her two months’ salary?

“You cannot be generous with what is mine,” she said.

And the divorce, like horses in a muddy race, their sides frothing, was off and running.
Dominique Browning’s take (which is a nimble and informative piece of writing in itself) on Schine’s novel includes this acute insight:
Under the snap and sizzle of the story there lurks a profound tragedy—in the heartbreak of the jettisoned wife, chucked out “to spin helplessly in the dark, infinite sky of elderly divorce.” Annie’s writer boyfriend gives readings in front of “a hundred such women, a thousand… 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.”
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