Paula Marantz Cohen
Author of Jane Austen in Boca
December 2002/January 2003
by Bella Stander
Ever since she was six years old, Paula Marantz Cohen wanted to be a writer. "I was always writing poetry and short stories and sending them to women's magazines," the Drexel University humanities professor says from her home in Moorestown, N.J. But her work was never accepted, "so I went to grad school and became a literary critic." Cohen, whose several works include Silent Film and the Triumph of the American Myth (Oxford Univ. Press), loves teaching and writing academic nonfiction.
When Cohen visited her snowbird in-laws in Boca Raton, Fla., for the first time a decade or so ago, she observed that "the enclosed world of like-minded people was very similar to the world of Jane Austen," she says. The beloved English novelist, whose 227th birthday is December 17, once wrote, "Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on." Cohen notes, "Austen has been faulted for being provincial, but in that closed world you can see human relationships more keenly. Also, there's so much humor to be tapped."
Upon returning home to New Jersey, Cohen wrote about twenty pages of a story based on Pride and Prejudice, featuring a meddlesome Jewish housewife fashioned after Austen's Mrs. Bennet, but put it aside after her oncologist husband told her-rightly, she says-that she had "a tin ear for dialogue." Then two years ago, she got in tune by performing a short piece she'd written about a young assistant professor who goes to Boca Raton and teaches literary theory to senior citizens. "I felt the voices, which I wasn't able to do originally," says Cohen, who credits her improvement to movie-watching.
Not long after that breakthrough, Cohen picked up a copy of the Judith Krantz memoir, Sex and Shopping, and was struck by Krantz's statement that she wrote her first novel when she was 47. Whereupon Cohen, who was also 47, went home and immediately started writing. It took her a mere three months to complete the manuscript for Jane Austen in Boca, published in November by St. Martin's Press. "Every other book I've written was like blood from a stone," she confesses. "This just poured out. It was such a joy. I had been told that if you don't write by the time you're thirty you're not going to be a novelist. Obviously it's not true," she points out with as much relief as pride.
Set in the northern New Jersey suburbs and a Boca Raton retirement community, the main characters and story line parallel that of Pride and Prejudice, but with widowed Jews in place of young English gentlefolk. Busybody Carol Newman decides that her mother-in-law is lonely and bustles down to Florida to set shy May up with Norman, a wealthy retired leather salesman. His best friend Stan, a semi-retired English professor, is at constant loggerheads with May's friend Flo, a sharp-tongued former librarian. Meanwhile their other friend Lila keeps her eyes open for a well-off husband. Throughout, Cohen offers gimlet-eyed and uproariously funny critiques of everything from the significance of the color turquoise in Jewish home décor to the dynamics of trying on clothes at Loehmann's. "It isn't as complicated a plot as Pride and Prejudice," she says. "I was very interested in all the sociological details in this world, both in Boca and North Jersey."
"My concern when I first wrote the book was that I might be overly mocking these people, which wasn't what I intended," says Cohen. "I was very relieved when my mother-in-law read an early draft and said she loved it. She is incredible." (The author's own mother died four years ago.) Cohen says that her husband, "my best and first reader," thinks it's good too-including the dialogue. She cheerfully admits that Jane Austen in Boca is "frivolous, but that's not bad. I'd call it a romantic satire. My sister says it's a beach book." As for Cohen's teenage son and daughter, "They like the idea that I've finally written something that people will read."
And what about Miss Austen? "I think the book's in her spirit," says Cohen. "She wrote according to the strictures of her day. If Jane were writing now, she'd probably be writing hot sex."
On the other hand, Cohen admits to having some trepidation about the response from her fellow academics. "I think of Erich Segal. He was maligned for having written Love Story." But it made him rich, we remark. "Yes, but he didn't get tenure," Cohen shoots back. "Of course, I have tenure."
Contributing editor Bella Stander was a card-carrying member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and in the last century survived the ten extra days of her most interesting condition by reading Miss Austen's complete works.
© 2002 Bella Stander