BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor

Matrimony Is in the Air

Jane Austen in Boca

By Paula Marantz Cohen.
New York: Saint Martin’s Griffin, 2002.
258 pages. Paperback. $12.95.

Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel.

Every Austen-lover’s dream is to discover another novel to complement the all-too few half-dozen books by the fabulous Jane—reduced, as we are, to rereading the Juvenilia and the unfinished fictions. Now Janeites can take comfort in the Austen craze that has spawned numerous films and television mini-series and, most recently, adaptations of her novels. One of the best of these is Jane Austen in Boca, a novel by Paula Marantz Cohen, Professor of English at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“Mrs. Grafstein is dead.” The novel opens with this statement, invoking the epigraph, “Take it from me. A nice widower with a comfortable living can be nudged into settling down with a not-so young woman who plays her cards right.”

The setting is Boca Festa retirement village, where female friends Flo Kliman, retired librarian, and May Newman, grieving widow, meet Norman Grafstein, resident of the Broken Arrow—an up-scale community catering to wealthy Jewish men—and his friend Stan Jacobs. Unlike other seniors, Stan is a permanent resident who teaches English literature at Florida Atlantic University. Recently widowed, he is grieving for his beloved wife.

Into this harmonious quartet comes the charming Mel Shirmer, sometime journalist. His courtship of Flo, during which he fuels the fire of Flo’s hostility towards Stan Jacobs, hits a speed-bump at the Boca Festa Valentine’s Day Dance, the high point of the social year, at which he fails to show up, leaving Flo to entertain Stan. Stan refuses Flo’s invitation to dance, but May and Norman’s budding romance renders Stan thoughtful. Shortly thereafter, Norman departs to visit his family up in North Jersey, leaving May to mourn.

While Norman and May’s entente enters its hiatus, Lila Katz marries Hy Marcus. Hy has the joie-de-vivre that Lila’s husband of a half-century, Mort, lacked. Denied a wedding by Mort, Lila dragoons her friends into being septuagenarian bridesmaids to her white-gowned bride, followed by a honeymoon to the Europe that Lila has never seen. “I suppose Italy compensates to some extent for marrying a fool,” comments Flo.

The background for this Pride and Prejudice update is not the Napoleonic Wars, but the development of Viagra. Hy surprises Lila with his renewed youthful vigour—“like high speed on the blender” that suddenly comes unplugged—recalls the once-again widowed Lila to Flo, who is secretly relieved that she no longer has to “envision her friend as a septuagenarian prostitute.”

Certain elements contemporize this witty adaptation. First is Flo’s email correspondence with her favourite niece, Amy Runcie-Slotkin, at her “womanwarrior” address, after her son, the dotcom millionaire, gives her a computer. Soon Flo is surfing the web with the best. Amy adds to the metafictional mix by proposing to make a film about Boca Festa— “an enclosed homogeneous community in which very intricate and elaborate relationships are generated. It’s the ideal, narrative material with visual appeal for a post-modern age.” Responds Flo, “It’s Jane Austen’s ‘two or three families in a country setting’ updated and up-aged.”

For embarrassing parents and interfering aunts, here we have spoiled grandchildren and the daughter-in-law from hell, Carol. Carol has her compensations, however. When she learns of Norman Grafstein’s defection, she maneuvers a meeting, becoming, in May’s eyes, “the incarnation of the good fairy in the guise of a suburban yenta.”

Matrimony seems to be in the air: added to Norman and May’s reunion and Lila’s short-lived marriage, Mel Shirmer surprises everyone by marrying rich Boca Festa resident Roz Fliegler, after learning that Flo’s husband lost his wad in ill-advised investments. Flo reads Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to confirm her sense that “the battle of the sexes still raged undiminished as the fuel for literary creativity.” She is surprised, reading Bellow by the pod pool, by the arrival of Stan Jacobs, who declares, “The fact of the matter is, I’m having a hard time getting you out of my mind,” adding that he can’t understand how he could be infatuated with a woman so different from the wife whom he adored, prompting Flo to retort hotly in words that may reflect the author’s colleagues:

I knew you were an arrogant boor, a man who, for all his book-learning, had failed to master the rudiments of polite conversation and etiquette. I knew that you had a jealous and malevolent streak, that you had been instrumental in ruining a job prospect for Mel Shirmer. […] That you could come here and tell me that I lack all the qualities you admire most, that I am the antithesis in all respects of your wife, that you like me despite your good taste and better judgment— and then expect me to respond with gratitude—seems not only arrogant beyond words but stupid.

Following this acrimonious proposal scene, Flo begins to view Stan more thoughtfully. After all, “A good friendship, like a good marriage, is based on speaking your mind and maintaining independence,” as Flo declared previously.

A final metafictional element is introduced by Stan’s plan to supplement his course on Jane Austen at Florida Pacific with a course on “Jane Austen and Her Adaptors” for the residents of Boca Festa, which the trio of the newlywed couple, Norman and May, plus Flo, plan to attend. The seniors’ debate about whether Darcy or Elizabeth exhibits pride or prejudice forms a grand finale to Paula Marantz Cohen’s witty adaptation.

Nora Foster Stovel is Professor of English at the University of Alberta, where she teaches primarily modernist and Canadian literature.  She has  published books and articles on D. H. Laurence, Margaret Laurence, and Margaret Drabble, and she is currently composing a study on the writing of Carol Shields.

JASNA News v.22, no. 1, Spring 2006, p. 19

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