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Sense and Sensibility; Waiting to Exhale

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A woman of seven and twenty,’ said Marianne, after pausing a moment, ‘can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.’ — Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

This morning…it occurred to me that my life is half over. Never in a million years would I have ever believed that I would be thirty-six years old and still childless and single. But here I am.Terry McMillan, Waiting to Exhale

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear there was a spinster film festival taking place this Christmas. But don’t write off Waiting to Exhale and Sense and Sensibility as just lonely-chicks-who-bond movies. Not only are they good films, they’re even better books. So what if they were written nearly 200 years apart? Who cares if one’s about four feisty African-American women and the other’s about two gentlewomen in repressive 19th-century English society? Women who love too much always make good copy.

Despite the similarities, you’d be well advised to pick up the paperback of Terry McMillan’s 1992 best-seller, Waiting to Exhale (Pocket Books, $6.99), before you see the movie, and wait to read Jane Austen’s 1811 classic, Sense and Sensibility (Penguin, $6.95), until afterward. Both movies are gratifyingly faithful to the originals; fortunatelyMcMillan helped adapt her own book to the screen and served as an executive producer. And it was even more fortuitous that Austen, this year’s posthumous It Girl, has a 20th-century cosmic twin in Emma Thompson, who not only stars in Sense and Sensibility but also wrote the screenplay.

For modern-day sensibilities, of course, Waiting to Exhale is the easier read. From the very first page, McMillan’s earthy, colloquial prose about the lives of four women in Arizona who are unlucky in love is so dead-on it’s as if you’ve wandered into their heads and are hearing their thoughts read aloud. ”What I want to know is this,” says Savannah Jackson (played by Whitney Houston in the movie). ”How do you tell a man — in a nice way — that he makes you sick?…I’ve wanted to tell some of them that acrobatics and banging the hell out of me is not the same as making love.”

Waiting to Exhale is the kind of book you can get lost in; it’s like being a fly on the wall at a funny, savvy slumber party. Its dishy, diarylike tone is better suited to the page than to celluloid, but watching the characters come alive in the movie version after you’ve read the book makes them both a richer experience.

In contrast, Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is so crisp, merry, and timeless that it might inspire those who think of Austen as high school syllabus material to read the book and enjoy it more after seeing the movie. Austen’s slyly satirical yet moving tale of the two Dashwood sisters — sensible Elinor, who will surely marry for practical reasons (or will she?), and her younger sister Marianne, the hopeless romantic who will no doubt wed in the throes of grand passion (or will she?) — might seem hopelessly priggish to someone raised on Danielle Steel and Baywatch. ”I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure,” says Elinor, describing the love of her life. But stick with it and the starchy-seeming prose will grow on you—even if while you read you’re envisioning the 36-year-old Thompson as the 19-year-old Elinor. (Even though Thompson does look too old for the role, she captures Elinor’s youthful essence.)

Best of all, since nobody needs a downer during the holidays, both Sense and Exhale have happy endings. I predict your enjoyment of these books will be exceedingly great — even if you’re not delicate and pure. Waiting to Exhale: B+ Sense and Sensibility: A