Cathleen Schine recreates Jane Austen’s beloved novel, Sense and Sensibility, with a modern touch in The Three Weissmann’s of Westport. While Schine’s adaptation of the Austen classic was named a New York Times Book Review Book of the Year, altering the story, characters, time and place of a beloved tale is no easy task. While some readers appreciate a fresh voice and somewhat different ideas introduced in a new version, others are tied down to their love and appreciation for the formatting, style, and characterization of Austen’s original material. Although some of Schine’s modernizations of the old text work for today’s audiences, there are limitations to her ability to convey the story, setting, relationships, and satire in a manner comparable to Jane Austen.
Although the story of the Weissmann women, Betty, and her daughters Miranda and Annie, is comparable in many ways to that of Austen’s Dashwood ladies, there are also stark contrasts dividing the two texts. While a reader of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility finds himself or herself absorbed in the personalities, emotions, and experiences of the family, the same cannot be said for the reader of Schine’s version. The author creates a setting that goes from New York City to a cottage on a beach in Westport Connecticut, where the Weissmann women must live to get by. Yet, despite the potentially interesting background, little action occurs, and the interactions between and among the women and the people they meet don’t leave the pages, leaving the reader disinterested in the outcome of the story. What makes the lack of character development more disconcerting is that a reader who has already experienced the impeccable Austen version of the story: a) expects more from the characters and writing style and b) already knows what is going to happen in the end.
In a lecture famed director, screenwriter, and producer J.J. Abrams gave at TED, he discussed the concept of the “mystery box,” which he considers essential to keeping an audience enthralled in any great piece of film or writing. Some famous examples he gave were the audience never seeing the shark in Jaws or the alien in the Alien series; when the mystery is gone, so is the excitement and the wonder. When I read The Three Weissmann’s of Westport, I thought of the “magic box,” because one of the most essential components of the original story Schine altered was the role of the father figure in the lives of the women. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Dashwood passes away, leaving the women in his life with no inheritance. But, in The Three Weissmann’s, Joseph Weissmann has not died; he has decided to divorce Betty. There is always a lingering sense that he will restore their relationship and financial status; therefore, there is no mystery as to how the women’s crisis will be resolved. Altering this piece of the story makes it unnecessary for the daughters to develop any significant relationships of their own to help solve the major family concern.
In conclusion, the book is predictable and uneventful. For those who have not read Austen’s work first, the reaction might be different. However, if one had read Sense and Sensibility, there should be no reason to choose The Three Weissmann’s of Westport as a first choice.
Final Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
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Watch J.J. Abrams “The Mystery Box” Lecture it is AMAZING!