This is, however, the twenty-first century, and in this novel, those sisters are decidedly modern New Yorkers, as is their mother, Betty. And while the sisters fill their practical/flighty roles quite delightfully, Betty’s part is rather more complex. Just start with the opening paragraph and you’ll be plunged into a world turned upside down:
“When Joseph Weissmann divorced his wife, he was seventy-eight years old and she was seventy-five. …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?’”
There was, of course, another woman involved, someone with whom he worked, someone younger, someone eager and aggressive. This tale of the dissolution of a long marriage could, in other hands, be incredibly depressing, but Schine is a writer both observant and tender. Her take on the heartbreaking situation is a dead-on look at the emotional, financial, irretrievable cost of Joseph’s words and actions. This is, however, no sob-story slog through sticky emotions; Schine gives her characters humor and courage and intelligence and frailty, the latter buoyed up by the strengths each brings to the situation.
Betty and her grown daughters Annie (the practical one) and Miranda (the impulsive one) find, by necessity, resilience and comfort in one another. The daughters leave their own apartments when Betty is forced to leave her large, elegant apartment on Central Park West, forced out by the machinations of The Other Woman.
The three Weissmann women find refuge in a rundown beach cottage in Westport, CT. The place is owned by Betty’s extravagantly eccentric relative, Cousin Lou. I defy you to read this book without anticipating the movie, and having a fine time mentally casting the part of Cousin Lou, a truly irresistible role.
It helps, when you’re reading the book, if you have spent some time in New York, or at least know some real New York women, smart, determined, elegant creatures that they can be. In this case, Betty is a classic wife of a wealthy, successful man. She has never worked outside the home, but has put all her talents and energies into its décor and its inhabitants (husband and daughters).
Annie, the sensible, pragmatic elder daughter who was once married, has two grown sons whom she loves with all her heart. She is a librarian, capable and quiet, and given to worrying about her mother and sister. Miranda, on the other hand, is distractible, jumping from one enthusiasm to another, extravagant and unconcerned with financial or domestic details. She has run a successful literary agency which has just gone bankrupt, thanks to a series of scandals caused by authors whose veracity she did not check.
As in any really fine piece of writing, this novel touches us on many levels. Schine treats the sad business of divorce and infidelity with a wry and perceptive humor, without losing sight of its considerable pain. Her grasp of what makes a family a family, without overt discussion, strikes a responsive chord in the reader. She introduces new relationships and a new way of life for her characters, but doesn’t present those as instant panaceas for their pain, as so many “chick lit” novels do. She allows healing to move slowly, and acknowledges that it may never be complete. She has a good grip on the messiness of life, but also on the resilience of the human heart and spirit.
In other words, while The Three Weissmanns of Westport may be quite a perfect beach read, it is also a book of depth and truth and humor. I suppose you could call it “chick lit” as well as “beach read,” but it is a great deal more than either of those things, and it is well-worth the reading.
©2010 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomen.com