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Cathleen Shine

Why do we read books that puzzle and confound?

Earlier this week I was fortunate to join in a book club’s discussion of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. I hadn’t talked about a difficult read, at length, with a group of smart, educated women since I was in college. Such interesting talking points: Does it matter if a character is unknowable? Unlikeable? If there’s a plot? If we know the story’s end at its beginning?

When we couldn’t agree on the book’s subject — alienation? immigration? colonialism? a marriage? — the hostess (thank you) piped up. She liked the “business” of the book we were discussing, but pined for a structured read with a character-driven plot. Such as? “Jane Austen.”

I enjoy difficult reads, but I also welcome and sometimes deeply need an Austen-like read, where there’s a problem, or three, worked out in a pleasing way that sometimes ends with a marriage. “Or two marriages,” a book club member observed.

weissmanns-lgThis is a long way to recommending Cathleen Shine’s The Three Weissmans of Westport. Using Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as a frame, Shine provides a smart, funny, satisfying read about two adult sisters who move with their elderly mother, newly divorced and homeless, to a Connecticut cottage. They’re all New Yorkers, so the dislocation from fabulous lifelong digs on Central Park West, to the suburban seaside, is a hilarious jolt.

They’re a recognizable but nutty bunch. Instead of divorce, the mom pretends she’s widowed; after all, she is mourning a marriage. Sister Miranda falls in love with … her lover’s toddler son! Sister Annie frets over their collective spending (they have no money!) and her puzzling on-again, off-again romance with a famous writer.

Sure, it’s Austen’s set up, but Shine unravels the story in new, fresh, witty ways. I laughed out loud, on a city bus, reading it. Best of all, the book ends with a funeral that’s as good as a wedding.

A delightful read.

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The New York Times ran a breezy piece recently about summer reads aimed at women. I turned to it excitedly: I’m a girl, I love to read. Surely there’d be something on the list for me. Nope.

What to read during the summer? Do we really seek out “lighter” reads in the warmer months? I don’t.

512j2j57yjl2Here’s a list of books I love that are by, for or about women.

  • The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, (Vintage, $15.95). Nothing and everything happens in this big read set in Osaka after World War Two. Clinging to ancient ways, two sisters try to place Yukiko in a proper, aristocratic marriage — increasingly difficult as she ages. Another sister brazenly takes on lovers. Lovely descriptions of various regions, and ways of life, in postwar Japan.
  • Anne Sexton: A Biography, by Diane Wood Middlebrook, (Vintage, $17.95). The poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was celebrated in her time for her confessional poetry. Middlebrook knows poetry and poets; her “reading” of Sexton’s poems is smart and digestible. This is a deeply affecting life story that reads more like a novel than the scholarly work that it is. (Recommended by my friend Jennifer.)
  • Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, by Victoria Glendinning, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, buy used). Vita’s gardens, homes, marriage, lovers, and writings made her a legend in her own time (1892-1962). Virginia Wolff was among her lovers, and Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle is said to be the most visited garden in all of England. I didn’t want this book to end: what a life! (Pressed on me by my friend Suzanne, lent in a plastic bag, bound by a rubber band.)
  • The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Shine, (Picador, $14). An ensemble piece set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. People, and dogs, get together, fall in love, and fall apart. A rich read, with a surprisingly sweet, and fitting, end.
  • The Great Man, by Kate Christensen, (Anchor, $14.95). A textured story of the women left behind after a famous artist’s death: his widow and their autistic son, his mistress and their twin daughters, and his sister, who’s also a painter. A window into the New York art world, and a rare depiction of older women. (Thanks, Jennifer, for recommending.)

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