Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs
By Paula Marantz Cohen.
St. Martin’s Press, 2006. 275 pages. Hardcover. $23.95.
Reviewed by Janine Barchas.
While this is not Cohen’s first adaptation of Austen (she previously reset Pride and Prejudice in a Florida retirement community), it is surely her best yet. The heroine of this smart modernization of Persuasion is Anne Erlich, a 34-year-old guidance counselor at Fenimore High School. At the age of 21, Anne followed the advice of her kvetchy grandmother Winnie and ended her relationship with
Ben Cutler—then a penniless graduate from Queens College working at a travel agency. Now, 13 years later (Cohen valiantly staves off spinsterhood for the modern woman by half a decade when
she adds five to Austen’s eight!), Ben has acquired the status of a “travel mogul” with an acclaimed series of books called Cutler’s Guides to Cultures. They meet again when Ben returns from Europe to
enroll his nephew in Fenimore High. Ben’s financial rise has coincided with the Erlichs’ decline. Whereas Anne’s grandmother Winnie was once regarded as “Westchester royalty,” her spendthrift father, the widowed Elihu Erlich, has burned through the family fortune with shopping sprees on Burberry wear, Ralph Lauren décor, and club memberships. As a result, the Erlichs must sell their
Scarsdale homestead. On cue, Ben Cutler offers to buy the 3 million dollar property. In the transactions surrounding the sale, Winnie, now 87 and tamed by ill health and episodes of General Hospital, strikes up a bizarre friendship with the Cutlers that places Anne in awkward proximity to Ben and his new fiancée, the stylish Kirsten Knudsen from Copenhagen.
The wit of this refashioning of Persuasion sparkles from the brilliant (because a tad gaudy) equivalents found for Austen’s original situations. For example, whereas Austen’s novel opens with Walter Elliot’s obsessive reading of the Baronetage, Cohen begins hers with a fiery speech from an “Ivy Packager,” a
college consultant eager to exploit parental anxiety about college admissions. Thus the British social hierarchy of the peerage is replaced with the contemporary American obsession with school rankings, GPAs, and standardized test scores. Four years at Yale, Harvard, or (in a pinch) Stanford supplant the old pedigrees of birth and marriage. The substitution is as much a gloss of Austen’s original intention as it is an apt contemporary social critique. Similarly, the narcissistic Sir Walter Elliot is played by the vain Elihu Erlich—“a regular at Elizabeth Arden.” The artful Mrs. Clay appears as “preening ingrate”
Carlotta Dupre, the professional sponger who takes advantage when she sublets Anne’s apartment. Carlotta menacingly shows up on Elihu’s arm at parties, but eventually undergoes a surprisingly
sympathetic reveal as porn star Candy Delight.
The cleverest equivalencies concern Austen’s Captain Benwick, on whom Austen bestowed a tragic past along with a predilection for Romantic poetry. Cohen reinvents him as Peter Jacobson, a contemporary poet and winner of the unknown Pitzer Prize (named, we are told, in the hopes of being confused with the Pulitzer). Peter, like Benwick before him, lost his girlfriend to illness—in this
case “a rare blood disease”—and the
wake of his bereavement stirs Anne’s
sympathies. After Peter holds a poetry
workshop at Fenimore High School,
Anne agrees to go out on a date with him
to an exhibit of mortuary sculpture—a
rather witty gloss of Benwick’s selfindulgent
reading. Eventually Peter
helps nurse Anne’s cousin Rachel, an
out-of-work actress and the stand-in for
Louisa Musgrove, during a protracted
recovery from illness. While I don’t wish
to spoil the fun of Persuasion-spotting
for others by detailing how Cohen manages
to rework Louisa’s fall at Lyme
Regis into her adaptation, allow me to
hint that Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”
ingeniously figures in the scene.
The high-school setting of Cohen’s
novel invites comparison with Clueless,
Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film adaptation
of Emma. Like Clueless, Cohen’s
redesign of Austen brings an old novel
up-to-date. Unlike Clueless, which initially
hid its debt to Emma from teenage
fans, Cohen includes a number of selfconscious
references to Austen that wink
at her target audience. At one point,
Winnie chides Anne: “Life isn’t a Jane Austen novel. It’s one thing to be longsuffering
in a story, where the author can
make it worth your while, but in real life,
who’s going to make sure it ends happily?
Just look at what happened with
poor Jane Austen. She worked things out
for that long-suffering ninny, Anne
Elliot, in her last book, but who worked
things out for her?” In the tradition of
parallel translation, Cohen ensures that
her reader remembers the original.
Cohen realizes that the better you know
Austen, the more you will enjoy her visit