French, Marilyn 1929–
French is an American novelist, critic, and short story writer. Her work seeks to clarify human values of the past, portraying their importance and influence on modern thought. She draws upon her experiences of marriage, motherhood, and divorce in her work, perhaps most notably in The Women's Room. She has written under the pseudonym Mara Solwoska. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
The trouble with feminist novels is that politics gets in the way of fiction, and sorting out the resulting reactions is like extracting Brer Rabbit from the briar patch. In this respect The Women's Room is no exception. The novel's basic thesis—that there is little or no foreseeable future for coexistence between men and women—is powerfully stated, but still invokes a lonely chaos repellent to most readers. In almost every other way, though, the novel is exceptional; and despite its length, for a novel of ideas it is easy to read.
Its characters are engaged in demonstrating a premise most of us are unable and unwilling to accept, yet we care for them, sympathize with them and give them our support. It does not deal with a single, recognizable crisis, such as a woman discovering a new identity, but with a whole era—three decades and a generation of women. Most important, in its ungainly groping way it touches a painful chord, extracts an unwilling realization that its women speak at least a part of the truth about themselves and how our society has treated them.
It has not treated them well. But the book avoids melodrama or self-pity, concentrating instead on the constant, grinding details of life which turn the psyche bitter and the conscience cold….
This long and disturbing book has no complex, honed structure. It quite simply follows 40 years in the life of one woman. (p. E1)
If what happened along the way was a reenactment of the battle between the sexes, the author playing a new set of variations on a theme of Adam and Eve, we could be interested, beguiled and reassured. But what we see, paralyzed like a rabbit before a snake, is the polarization of the sexes: The cracks under the microscope become crevasses, the crevasses widen to chasms.
It is easy to "tut, tut" about the limitations and the emptiness of a New Jersey suburb in the '50s. The new women, thank God, have escaped all that. They have cast it aside as have their men. But, in the book, self-satisfaction is short-lived. It changes to hurt and some surprise when the bright...
(The entire section is 881 words.)
[Mira, the heroine of "The Women's Room,"] starts out submissive and repressed, anxious to live up to other people's expectations of her. She ends up liberated but lonely, painfully adjusting to a new kind of life. It's the period in between that make the book so interesting. (p. 7)
The details of suburban life accumulate: balky ice-cube trays and Cub Scout meetings interlace with adulteries, attempted suicides and enforced stays in mental institutions. It's the small events that make the large events ring true, that remove from them any hint of the soap opera. Some shattering dramas occur in this book, but they're nearly always believable; we're willing to accept them as part of normal life.
Mira feels herself to be a victim, and stories told by victims tend to be long and narrow, as if strung through a funnel of suffering. "The Women's Room" is, in fact, very long and very narrow. Everything that happens—marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, the most mixed and mingled of occasions—seems almost purely negative, viewed with the glassy eye of belated resentment. There is no "equal time" offered; the men are given no chance to tell their side of the story. Compared to the women—each separate and distinct, each rich in character—the men tend to blur together. They're all villains, and cardboard villains at that.
But this narrowness is, I believe (or hope), intentional. The bias of "The Women's Room" is a part of the novel. It's almost the whole point. When Mira, acting as narrator, fails to give us any clear description of the man she marries, we first suspect her of careless storytelling. But it proves later to have been deliberate—Marilyn French's own very careful way of telling...
(The entire section is 716 words.)