The Three Weissmanns of Westport

The American novelist Cathleen Schine shows no embarrassment about wanting to give the reader a happy, pointless time. And why should she? This has been one of comedy's functions for millennia and she has the benevolent perspective and lightness of touch required for the job. But there are limits to the kind of comedy in her book, with its dual debt to the sitcom set-up and the stand-up joke. For most readers, the novel's formula will be too thin to bear.

Indeed, this rewriting of Sense and Sensibility has much in common with The Finkler Question, the latest Booker prize-winning novel from the writer who once called himself "the Jewish Jane Austen" (Howard Jacobson). It concerns two middle-aged Jewish women and their mother (rather than two middle-aged Jewish men and their father-figure); it pegs its characters with a couple of traits and then places them in scenarios that all too conveniently bring out these traits; it is full of riffs, gimmicks, similes, verbless sentences, rhetorical questions, cultural reference points, parochial satire and cliffhanger-ish chapter endings. Both books have at their centre a 49-year-old at an impasse and they end with the deaths of equivalent characters. But Schine is warmer and less hectoring. The Jewish­ness of Jews rarely comes up. There is no discussion at all of Israel; strangely, I didn't miss it.

The three Weissmanns, who relocate from Manhattan to Westport, Connecticut, are Miranda, a successful literary agent; Annie, a divorced librarian; and Betty, their 75-year-old mother. Betty is being divorced by her 78-year-old husband, Joseph, beloved stepfather to Miranda and Annie, whose birth father "died suddenly and young in an automobile acci­dent". As if this divorce were not enough, Miranda accidentally confesses to Oprah that her misery-memoirists have been lying: "the elusive Bongo Ffrancis had turned out to be a middle-aged Midwestern housewife, not the 17-year-old Welsh heroin addict his memoir had described". So they leave the city and take refuge in an old cottage by the beach. Over the coming months, they encounter glimmers of hope for the future, first false, then real.

Near the beginning of the book, we read of Miranda's "typical high-volume inefficient ferocity" - that "typical" is typical. One running joke involves nervous, irrational Betty talking about Joseph as if he is dead and of herself as a widow; another involves her deliberately forgetting the name of Joseph's assistant-turned-mistress - she is called Felicity, but Betty calls her Pleurisy, Duplicity, Vivacity and Capacity. The book is built around comic ideas that tell us once again what the characters are like without ever quite making us laugh.

Schine is clearly drawn to these little jokes, but she underestimates the extent to which they detract from our investment in her characters and their world. A paragraph towards the beginning explains that Miranda owed her reputation for being "irrational, high-handed, sly, and demanding" to her myopia: "following a briefly fashionable craze for eye exercises, she refused to wear either glasses or contact lenses". She sweeps past people she knows without greeting them and leaves editors with the bills at the end of meals. But being myopic is not the same as being amnesiac, and just because Miranda couldn't see the bills, it doesn't follow that she didn't know they would be coming.

Later in the book, the Weissmanns' benign cousin Lou, a well-known host and entertainer in Westport, has to deal with his 98-year old father-in-law, who calls himself Sherwood but was born Shpuntov. After his 80-year-old girlfriend dies, Lou's wife, Rosalyn, "suggested a home, and Lou assumed she meant her own. When she realised his mistake, it was already too late". But are we really expected to believe that "a home" and "our home" would cause this confusion? Even jokes need to make sense and good ones always do.

Elsewhere, Schine proves herself capable of swift and appealing comic prose. A conversation between Joseph and Felicity, in which they persuade each other they are being generous to Betty by depriving her of the apartment, is a creditable descendant of Mr and Mrs John Dashwood's exchange at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility. But it is difficult to work up much interest in a book so insistent on its own lack of weight and consequence, a book with so little emotional stake and moral conflict. John Updike once described the infinite as littleness piled high; the abiding sense one has reading this ephemeral comedy is of littleness stretched too far - of a little going a little way.

Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer of the NS

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle