Woog's World: The three Weissmans of Westport
Published 1:03 am, Friday, January 29, 2010
For years, authors have used Westport as the inspiration for their work. F. Scott Fitzgerald incorporated Longshore and the Bedford estate into The Great Gatsby. Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Max Shulman's Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! captured our imperfect suburban town perfectly.
Now -- like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus -- Westport has made it into an author's title.
Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmans of Westport -- called "a sparkling contemporary adaptation of Sense and Sensibility" -- is earning rave reviews. Schine herself has been called "a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen" by People magazine.
The novel -- about three New York women living in a tiny beach cottage here, surrounded by enormous renovated houses -- is not a figment of the author's imagination. Schine -- a novelist, and contributor to the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker -- grew up in Westport. She graduated from Staples in 1971.
This place had a huge influence on her writing, she says. "The physical reality of the town -- the sounds of insects in summer, the light in winter, the curves of Roseville Road -- that's just an essential part of me.
"If I think of spring, I think of spring as I experienced it in Westport. Or fall or summer or winter. I have never been on a beach, anywhere in the world, that I loved as much as Compo and Burying Hill."
At the same time, she admits, "The town is so ripe for gently satiric treatment."
To do that in The Three Weissmans, Schine tried to see Westport from an outsider's point of view.
"It was amusing to imagine such a wealthy community as a place of exile," she says. "I had no problem using Westport in the title, perhaps because this novel is in no way autobiographical. No one I know shows up in the book as a character, except the town itself."
Like many who grew up here, Schine had a love-hate relationship with her hometown. As an adolescent, all she wanted was to get away to New York.
"I hated Westport, hated the idea of suburbia. It was so boring for a teenager."
Not until she had her own children did she see "all the pleasures of climbing trees and digging deep soggy holes at the beach. I love Central Park, but you can't really do that there."
When Schine's children -- now 26 and 22 -- were young, the family spent every summer, from June through September, in Westport with Schine's mother. "That was heavenly," the author recalls.
"I would not be inclined to live in Westport permanently again. I no longer fit. And now that my kids are older, I don't come out as much. But I always spend a few weeks there in the summer -- to visit my memories, really."
While here, she notices "the traffic and the new big houses, the disappearance of fields and meadows." She goes few places except Compo and Burying Hill, and always takes "the prettiest route": Turkey Hill or Morningside Drive. Both beaches, Schine says, "are still so much the way they were when I grew up here." Fittingly, much of The Three Weissmans of Westport takes place on the beach.
She also uses the Green's Farms post office -- sometimes "thinking up excuses to go there" -- and, like many natives, gives directions using bygone landmarks like the skating rink, Barker's, Remarkable Book Shop, Crest Diner, Clam Box and Chubby Lane's.
Another landmark -- her beloved Burr Farms Elementary School -- has also bitten the dust. Schine grew up just a few yards away, on Burr School Road.
"I loved the field that existed when the school was torn down. It was full of wildflowers and goldfinches and baby bunnies and wild raspberry bushes. My father used to take me on picnics there before the school was built, and I used to take my kids on picnics there after it was torn down.
"I was appalled when the houses went up. They seemed huge and out of place. But I always have that Avatar reaction to any change in Westport. That's one of the dangers of mythologizing your past. We are the gentle, nature-loving blue beings, and who are these crass people with bulldozers destroying everything?
"Westport still had active dairy farms when I was little, and fields of corn, and swamps you could slog through to see a great blue heron and catch frogs. Those places are all covered by houses now, which is sad. But the house I grew up in was built on what had been an onion farm, so who am I to complain?
"Anyway, compared to the new houses that have gone up on Burr Farms Road, the Burr School houses are itty-bitty little things. Sometimes too, I don't even notice them. I see through them. I see Mr. Melillo's room, Miss Fournier's room, the slide, the swings, the cafetorium. It will always be Burr Farms School to me."
So does Schine consider herself a Westporter, a New Yorker or -- now that she and her girlfriend spend part of each year on the West Coast -- a Californian?
"I love being near the beach and having a garden," she says. "But I don't think I could ever give up New York entirely. I've lived here now since college. It's become as much a part of me as Westport is. So I would say I think of myself as a bi-coastal New Yorker who grew up in Westport. How's that for a qualified answer?"
(Cathleen Schine will be reading and signing books at the Westport Public Library at noon on Feb. 24. When she was growing up, the site of the current library was the town dump.)