Jane Austen in Scarsdale

Cohen, Paula Marantz. Jane Austen in Scarsdale or, Love, Death, and the SATs (2006). 275 Pages. St Martin’s Press. $23.95

From the Cover

Anne Ehrlich is a dedicated guidance counselor steering her high-school charges through the perils of college admission. Thirteen years ago, when she was graduating from Colombia University, her wealthy family– especially her dear grandmother Winnie– persuaded her to give up the love of her life, Ben Cutler, a penniless boy from Queens College. Anne has never married and hasn’t seen Ben since– until his nephew turns up in her high school and starts applying to college.

Now Ben is a successful writer, a world traveler, and a soon-to-be married man, and Winnie’s health is beginning to fail. These changes have Anne beginning to wonder… Can old love be rekindled, or are past mistakes too painful to forget?

First Lines

“Great speaker last night, right?” Vince Flockhart, Fenimore’s principal, looked hopefully down at Anne Ehrlich, head of guidance, as she ate her grilled cheese sandwich in the faculty cafeteria. Report had it that the parents had been impressed by the speaker– though half had left in tears and the other half had been digging in the bottom of their bags for Valium.

Thoughts

I do not know much about Persuasion, as I’ve never actually read it, and I don’t recall watching a film version. From what I know, the main point is that Anne Elliot is from a good family, and falls in love with a handsome naval officer named Wentworth. Because her father, elder sister, and mentor disapprove of the match, Anne breaks it off. Several years later– when she is beyond “marriageable” age– Anne again encounters Wentworth, only now he is a successful, rich Captain. Things happen, and Anne ends up marrying Wentworth*.

If Jane Austen in Scarsdale were merely being judged on its ability to follow the general plot of Persuasion, I might have been more impressed. It does a decent job re-telling the story in modern New York. There are difficulties– as there always are when “updating” a classic– and it is hard to explain why a smart young woman would let her grandmother’s snobbery prevent her happiness.

However, it got very bogged down with the guidance counselor aspect. Several chapters were dealt dealing with “the parents,” who were all certifiable, and obnoxious. Additionally, the children were as crazed and driven as their parents, but whinier.** It didn’t really add to the story in any meaningful way, rather, it seemed to slow it down and distract from the main plot– which was supposed to relate to Persuasion. As either a retelling of Persuasion or a romance about a guidance counselor, this would have done very well, but it seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis at times.

The story still managed to be entertaining, and others may (and clearly have, judging by amazon’s rating) disagree with me, but I don’t think I particularly enjoyed it.  It scores a 2.5/5, for managing to be funny, at times, but still not good enough for me to really like it.

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* It’s been around for nearly 200 years, so I’m not concerned about spoilers.

** Good Lord. It drove me crazy to read about this. I went to one of those schools where it wasn’t “Are you going to college?” but rather, “Which college are you going to?” and I still wasn’t that crazed. I had reasonable expectations, and had worked hard enough to be near the top of my class without trying to get a 4.02. I didn’t even involve my mother very much, and she didn’t worry, because she had confidence in me, which mattered more than whatever the hell the parents in this novel seem to be doing. It felt like a little too much hyperbole, and it may have benefited from being a little less crazed.

7 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Chick-Lit, Contemporary Romance, General Fiction, Realistic Fiction

7 responses to “Jane Austen in Scarsdale

  1. Just a wondering, why not read Persuasion first before the modern homage? One, it’s a terrific book, and Two, it might have made this one more meaningful for you. It’s like reading “Wide Sargasso Sea” and THEN “Jane Eyre.” Madness!
    Obviously, too late for my suggestion, but Persuasion will still be good, even after the fact. Do consider it!

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    • It honestly never occurred to me to worry about reading Persuasion first. I often don’t stress about reading the classics before I read homages to them (or reinterpretations of them) the same way I frequently avoid reading the book before watching a movie. You’re constantly comparing details and finding one or the other lacking.

      That’s not to say that I won’t take the time to read Persuasion eventually. I do really enjoy Austen’s works, but I also enjoy taking my time with them, and I have to be in the right mood.

      The issue I had was less that I didn’t enjoy the Persuasion-esque storyline, and more that it seemed to lose track of it when it meandered too far into guidance-counseling.

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  2. I was pleasantly surprised with reading Persuasion, because Austen technically had not finished it fully yet (as it was published after her death). It’s one of my favorites actually.
    I can see why that would be a difficult adaptation (especially if it’s filled with college bound high school students and their parents). And I understand your experience (it was similar to mine), but trust me, there ARE parents like that.
    And referring to the last commenter, don’t read Wide Sargasso Sea before you read Jane Eyre. Just…don’t.

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    • Well, thanks to public domain, and having a Kindle, I’ve now got Persuasion in e-book format, so I may read it soon-ish. (I have a huge stack of books to wade through first.)

      I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you know those parents– you are from that sort of town, huh?

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  3. Ela

    There are rather a lot of Jane Austen themed novels around – I once read a rather good modern version of Pride and Prejudice, called Lions and Licorice – but not all of them work in a modern context. I’d think Persuasion wouldn’t be one of those which lent itself well to modern retellings, because the reason Anne rejects Wentworth when they’re both young is entirely valid for her time, but not so much for ours. I can also see that a guidance counselling theme might not tie in so well with a Persuasion-theme, either. Not being from the US, I’m not sure about the crazed aspect of college applications, but I gather the pushier of middle-class parents in the UK are probably as crazed as they are in the US.

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    • Anne rejects Wentworth (or rather, Ben) here for the same reasons, and it really doesn’t work as well anymore. Rather, it makes her seem both weak-willed and snobby, and I don’t feel like that’s true to the original.

      I am not familiar with crazed parents, perhaps because I’m lucky, or perhaps because they aren’t as prevalent as the novel would have them seem. I have heard of some awful, high-strung, demanding parents– like those who put their 3- and 4- year-old daughters in beauty pageants, for example– but I haven’t known many teenagers who would just take it rather than push back.

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      • Ela

        There’s Joyce Carol Oates’ rather terrifying satire on pushy American parents, My Sister, My Love, which I reviewed on my blog a a while ago, which also plays with the JonBenet Ramsay case. Skyler Rampike (who’s the older, less considered sibling) has a breakdown and spends his later teenage years after his sister’s murder in various special schools. All that stuff about ‘play-dates’ with other children, and the things those kids have (but not real love), is really rather scary.

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