Jane Austen's classic novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE begins with the oft-repeated line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Paula Marantz Cohen lets her readers know, right on the opening page, that she is of a similar mind. "Take it from me," the book opens, "A nice widower with a comfortable living can be nudged into settling down by a not-so-young woman who plays her cards right." Her debut novel, JANE AUSTEN IN BOCA, takes the action and gentle intrigue of Jane Austen's 18th century country gentry and schleps them all the way to a Jewish "retirement club" in Boca Raton, Florida. In this club, dogs wear embroidered jackets because in Boca "many dog owners feel their pets should be entitled to enjoy an accessory now and then." It is a sweet and gentle look into the lives and loves of some pretty hilarious senior citizens. I'm way under 70 and about as WASP-y as they come, but I still liked it.
The central plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE concerns the very British Bennet family's attempts to marry off their five daughters and all the subterfuge and machinations contained therein. The first two-thirds of Cohen's book borrows fairly heavily from Austen's classic. All the main characters are here. Elizabeth Bennet is now Flo Kliman, a retired University of Chicago librarian, while Elizabeth's sister Jane shows up as May Newman, a softhearted widow. Mrs. Bennet is turned into May's daughter-in-law Carol, a woman who "was constantly striving to improve the lives of those around her, whether they liked it or not." Carol believes May is depressed and needs some companionship, preferably of the Jewish widower variety. She, like Mrs. Bennet, hopes to help her mother-in-law snag a live one, whether May likes it or not.
The man for whom Carol sets her cap (a turquoise sequined cap, I'm sure) is Norman Grafstein, a fellow Boca resident and acquaintance from back home. The courtship of these two septuagenarians is, of course, not a smooth road --- nor is the improbable but inevitable romance that develops between May's friend Flo and Norman's friend Stan, the Elizabeth and Darcy of the book. In a portrayal of retired life that is neither overly sentimental nor tragic, Cohen allows her characters to be real people who enjoy and embrace life. The men, especially, view their retirement as a second youth. Feel free to insert your own Viagra joke here. The women form remarkably close friendships with each other --- and at times, it sounds more like they are all kids away at summer camp than in their "twilight years."
Like Jane Austen, Cohen has a flair for observations and dry humor. Carol, who is a force of nature, is seen by May as "the incarnation of a good fairy in the guise of a suburban yenta." On noticing another friend's "unusually extensive cleavage," Flo thinks, "breasts, beyond the age of forty-five, she took to be assets best kept under cover. Flo was distinctly in the minority among her peers in Boca Raton, however, where cleavage was as common as Bermuda shorts and often worn with them." Cohen's story is much less pointed than Austen's. Her characters may be fools, but they are well-meaning fools. The plot moves quickly, as one might expect with a novel that weighs in at only 258 pages, but one has plenty of time to get to know the characters and to root for them as they find much deserved happiness.
In EMMA, another of Jane Austen's classics, she writes, "Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced and the inconvenience is often considerable." Cohen must have taken this advice to heart, as the reader will probably see the end coming a mile away. It may be predictable and fluffy, but JANE AUSTEN IN BOCA is satisfying, like a nice chewy bagel or maybe some mandelbrot or some kugel or a sweet piece of rugelach. Maybe my next book should be a cookbook.
Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran on September 30, 2003
Jane Austen in Boca: A Novel