Updates of Austen fail to persuade

Somebody needs to give Jane Austen some well-deserved time off. Her characters are indelible, her plots durable - which is why they're constantly being borrowed.

In the past month alone, two new versions of "Persuasion" have hit bookstores. In one, the heroine is a Jewish guidance counselor; in the other, a Bostonian editor of a literary magazine. In both, she realizes that she's made a doozy of a mistake by listening to her family and ditching the love of her life years before.

Paula Marantz Cohen is no Austen novice. Her "Jane Austen in Boca" offered one of the more delicious updates, setting "Pride and Prejudice" in a Florida retirement community. "Persuasion," however, is more difficult to modernize. In 19th-century England, a young girl would have faced serious financial and social repercussions by going against her family's wishes. In today's America, the stakes just aren't that high - making our heroine look either like a wishy-washy snob or a flat-out wimp.

Cohen's lively sense of humor goes a long way to disguise this problem in "Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs." She's chosen a subject ripe for satire: the collegiate machinations of well-to-do parents whose sense of entitlement far exceeds their offspring's grades. As Anne puts it, "Dealing with Westchester parents would make the Dalai Lama tense." But away from the "guidance groupies" and "helicopter parents," the novel gets choppy. Cohen has hacked off a fair bit of the plot of "Persuasion," so that what's left ultimately proves distracting - readers will wonder what happened to the hypochondriac sister or the impassioned letter at the end of Austen's novel.

Dismayingly, Anne has little chemistry with her lost love, Ben, who's made an improbable fortune from travel guides. At one point, I started rooting for her to get together with the good-looking poet who was guest-starring in the Capt. Bennick role.

The missing man in Laurie Horowitz's "The Family Fortune" is also a writer, a literary lion who got his first big break from the woman who ultimately dumped him. "Fortune" hews more closely to the plot of "Persuasion," and debut novelist Horowitz nicely captures the sense of fading grandeur in her Boston and Martha's Vineyard settings.

In an opposite twist from "Scarsdale," "Fortune" is at its most uneven when Jane is at work running her literary magazine. When Jane comments that "by now, I was usually able to spot a story's potential in the first paragraph, and certainly by the end of the first page," and then starts to sing the praises of a cheap "West Side Story" knock-off, I snorted with laughter.

Horowitz is fortunate that real-life reviewers aren't as dismissive as her heroine, since "The Family Fortune" gets much better after a shaky start. Even the hypochondriac sister (who has a shopping habit that would impress Becky Bloomwood) gets a nuanced treatment, although Jane's self-centered father and oldest sister may be beyond rehabilitation.

While enjoyable, both novels leave open the question as to why their miserable misses didn't bother to pick up the phone or e-mail their beloveds over the course of a dozen or more years. This leaves one to believe that Austen, naturally, had the correct plan: Ship the dear boy off to sea and keep him there until his lady comes to her senses.

"Scarsdale" Grade: B-; "Fortune" Grade: B

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