I recently finished reading The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a novel by Cathleen Schine. It is summer, the book was described as “a clever, frothy novel” (The New Yorker) and containing “so much zest for life in this novel that you can only imagine how much fun Schine had writing it.” (Carol Memmott, USA Today). I cannot imagine, it seems, what Memmott’s idea of ‘fun’ might be, because this was certainly not it. I was looking forward to a summer novel about three women, not quite a beach read, but something light, quirky, fun–maybe even capable of producing a few smiles… Instead, I found that I had to force myself to return to the story of three dysfunctional women who spend over a year in a cramped beach house, getting on each other’s nerves, pining after men who don’t want them, and continuing to spend at a standard of living they can no longer afford. The story centers around a cosseted older woman whose husband has left her after forty-eight years of marriage. Her two daughters join her in her beach house exile–one who is heading for bankruptcy and a broken heart from a charismatic young neighbor, and another who is the family’s “responsible conscience,” to the extent that she finds herself unable to enjoy life. I give full marks to the author’s ability to capture the poignant moments in life and make them real (almost too real), and her prose is lyrical and elegant, especially as she describes the changes in season and natural landscape surrounding the three women throughout the year. The story has been described as a new take on Sense and Sensibility, however, I found it to be much more similar to Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” — a tale of people paralyzed by indecision, unfulfilled longing, ennui, and just plain boredom.
But now I turn to the issue of “Chic Lit,” and whether “The Weissmanns” would fit into this genre. The term was coined in possibly the 1980’s and has been described as literature that addresses the issues of modern womanhood, often in a humorous and lighthearted manner. (I guess ‘Weissmanns would fit if you thought it was humous.) I think most often when people hear ‘Chic Lit,’ they think of works such as Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” series, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jone’s Diary or Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes. What these all have in common is a “modern” woman’s approach to the same old age-old issues. I recently read Twenties Girl by Kinsella, and although it was a fun “caper” kind of story (her great aunt’s ghost comes back to haunt her until she helps find a lost necklace and uncovers a family secret), a great chunk of the plot revolves around the main character, Lara’s, quest to win back her old boyfriend in the most pathetic, cringe-worthy scenes. So often the character expends so much energy trying to connive her way out of a situation, instead of direct confrontation. It, like “Bridget Jones” and others in this regard almost seem like “I Love Lucy” episodes set in a more modern context, where the main character plots and connives and uses “feminine wiles” to trick some poor male sap into doing what she wants. How refreshing it would have been if just once we would see Lucy walk up to Ricky and negotiate a part in his show on her merit and the fact that he owed her that much! So, Chic Lit is really nothing new, just the same themes set in a more modern setting. That being said, by our working definition, it does run the gambit from more satirical to downright looney. And all the time I’m reading these stories I am wondering why so much time and energy and ink is devoted to justifying the buying of shoes, eating of chocolate, having one’s nails done, etc etc etc. If it is so obvious, why so much time devoted to examining the just causes for doing so? I don’t get it, but then again, maybe I will have to turn in my “female membership club” card. I have read a Chic Lit recently that did resonate with me… On the occasion of Nora Ephron’s passing a few weeks ago (When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle...), I picked up her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck and other thoughts on being a woman.” I thought, “Ugh-oh, this could be more blathering about the need for botox treatments and Jimmy Choo shoes for survival…” but I was refreshingly mistaken. Ephron laid down a courageous, sarcastic, caustically funny and laser-focused examination of growing old (gracefully!) as a professional woman and parent. I won’t spoil any of her essays, but my favorite was one about finding a new purse. I see it as an allegory for her life. In the end, after several failed attempts and gobs of money spent, she ends up with a hideous yellow and blue plastic sack, which she describes thus: “…it matches nothing at all and therefore, on a deep level, matches everything. It’s made of plastic and is therefore completely waterproof. It’s equaly unattractive in all seasons of the year. It cost next to nothing and I will never have to replace it because it seems to be completely indestructible. What’s more, never having been in style, it can never go out of style.” Gotta love that chic’s lit.