Cynthia Propper Seton Essay - Critical Essays

Seton, Cynthia Propper


Cynthia Propper Seton 1926–1982

American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Seton, who describes herself as a committed feminist, writes stylish, "serious" comedies about mature men and women and how the cultural changes that have occurred in America since the 1960s have affected their lives. Her female protagonists, often well-educated and formidably capable women who have spent most of their lives raising children, are portrayed as struggling to reconcile their pasts with what might have been and what is to come. Seton's male characters, usually stable professionals with traditional values, are also faced with the need to reexamine their lives and adjust their expectations. Typically, the well-established and familiar worlds of these men and women are disrupted by some dilemma, the resolution of which will have a significant impact on their lives.

Seton has won critical favor for her lively and finely crafted prose, ironic wit, and compassionate analyses of the well-intentioned lives of ordinary people. She is praised for her evenhanded characterizations of men in works that clearly express an allegiance to women and a commitment to their liberation from traditional social alignments.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vol. 108 [obituary] and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 7.)

Publishers Weekly

[The protagonist of The Sea Change of Angela Lewes] is fortyish, married to a professor at Smith, a mother, and a secret writer. Having had enough of her role of playing mother to her children and yielding wife to a boyish academic, Angela reassesses things. Part of her sea change comes from within, part from her not so sudden insights into her own family, the Porters, particularly the lives of her own mother and grandmother…. So Angela's own departure from her contented housewife's role has its roots in the past, her sea change becomes something of a family inheritance. What Mrs. Seton seems to be saying is that though men manage careers and families simultaneously, women can only cope with one at a time. The implications are curiously interesting, especially in an age of women's lib. Mrs. Seton's tale is intelligent, engaging, one that raises but doesn't solve some nagging questions.

A review of "The Sea Change of Angela Lewes," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the June 21, 1971 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1971 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 199, No. 25, June 21, 1971, p. 64.

Susan E. Burke

[In "The Sea Change of Angela Lewes"] Angela Porter Lewes' sea change is a personal, not a political, one. She is not, as the jacket copy implies ("… this novel is concerned with the question of equality between men and women") involved in Womens' Lib heroics, though, unfortunately, toward the end of the book, the author feels an obligation to throw in a few very male chauvinistic statements for her heroine to do battle with; the triteness almost ruins the Angela she has been building.

Angela Lewes grew up in New England, oversized and plain, and married Charlie, a "boy-man," the handsome, always youthful type who finds an obedient and sheltered wife the most comfortable to live with. Angela easily complied with this need, because it coincided with her own….

Eventually, simply through the secret act of writing (she's not an immediate success), she realizes that she has developed a self not dependent on her husband or her four children or her beloved father for its sustenance. She begins to feel her uniqueness and, instead of being self-deprecating, she becomes self-confident. Even her latent sexual powers are sparked by one of her husband's friends, whom she has loved for a long time, and by her agent, both gentle men who love her. Her sea change begins to finalize, to become Shakespearean, "into something rich and strange."

But Angela is not unique in her family: the other Porter women are no slouches at making themselves mistresses of their fates. Her grandmother, after dutifully raising her children and burying her...

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Lucy Rosenthal

[The Half-Sisters] does not have snappy one-liners but it does have an unflinching wit and seriousness and a sustained and subtle intelligence. And it has an idea—half-sisterhood—which may indeed be emblematic of the present state of relations among many women, whether blood sisters or not. Seton's prose takes some getting used to—she writes in what seems at first an almost fussy backhand slant—but it proves, after all, to serve her special and penetrating angle of vision on these two significantly intertwined lives. (p. 42)

Lucy Rosenthal, "Half-Sisterhood," in Ms. (© 1974 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. 11, No. 11, May, 1974, pp. 40-2.∗

Margaret Atwood

["The Half-Sisters"] is a snazzy, delightful novel, jaunty as a roadster and with something of its period flavor. It starts off in 1937 when its two 11-year-old heroines, energetic girls both, are spending August together as usual. They are related by marriage but not by blood—Erica's father has married Billie's mother—and are complementary rather than identical, Erica being plain, good and sensible, Billie stunning, bad and impulsive….

Listening to Cynthia Propper Seton recount their ups and downs, their betrayals, dishonesties, loyalties and illuminations, is like listening to a witty, well-traveled, sophisticated and slightly eccentric rich aunt gossiping and passing judgments upon her acquaintances, a fascinating passtime when the aunt has the flair, style and pithiness of the author. Also you learn things. She reminds me a little of Mary Poppins—no nonsense, please—and also of Lord Chesterfield, as she delivers verbal fillips to her characters' egos with 18th century elegance and precision, then injects them with helpful epigrams. The setting, too, has its elegances: it's the kind of world in which people have large flats in New York and spend the summer yachting at Moriches, and the author, polite or innocently snobbish, assumes we all know all about it. This plebian didn't, but it's great fun to watch, especially since the point, as in tennis (Billie's game), is not the activity or the content but the polish. Seton...

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Peter S. Prescott

In A Fine Romance two American families converge in an eight-day package tour of Sicily. Kitty Winters has had six children and time to think about the women's movement. She has decided to stay with her husband, Gerard, but she makes quarrelsome demands, little stabs at his psyche that leave the poor insensitive man confused. Gerard never noticed the crisis in their marriage; he loves his wife but he doesn't listen to her. Her sniping leaves him lonely and frustrated…. Alexia Reed, eighteen years younger, reminds him of his erotic fantasies, but Gerard, for the time at least, is monogamous; touring the ruins of an ancient civilization he is mindful that it is from repression that civilizations are made.

From such ingredients a dull writer would have made a soap opera. Fortunately, Cynthia Seton is very clever. She writes about intelligent people who have read good books, are capable of good arguments and aware that they do not always say quite what they mean. Her adults are all, one way or another, walking wounded—Alexia has come to Sicily with her family to help her sister recover from a nervous breakdown—and think of themselves, at one time or another, as victims. Good novels about workable marriages are almost extinct today, but Seton's is one: it is witty, observant and precise—and, oddly for a story by a feminist, it offers more sympathy to the good, dull husband than to the resigned, uncomfortable wife. (pp. 108-09)

Peter S. Prescott, "Connubial Blitz," in Newsweek (copyright 1976, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 20, May 17, 1976, pp. 108-09.


[A Fine Romance] is a novel of manners in which much of the insight sparkles in delightfully intelligent conversation. All the characters discover a little more about themselves by the story's end, especially Dr. Winters and his wife. For the first time, they are seriously questioning the viability of a marriage that strikes others as ideal.

Though jacket copy should be the last source of a reviewer's information, a biographical note on the inside flap caught my attention: "Ms. Seton thinks of herself as a committed feminist who has, in this novel, lent two-thirds of her sympathy to the man." The statement does approximate the author's own stance, for this is very much a novel about women's...

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The New Yorker

[A Fine Romance is a] stylishly playful novel, set in Sicily, which never really frees itself sufficiently from its theroretical underpinnings (feminism, the pros and cons of monogamy) to be fully engaging but which is nonetheless full of charm and wit…. None of the characters except Gerard Winters jells very much, but they all chatter amusingly and make a lot of mischief in the same places Odysseus did. The mood of the book falls somewhere between a Noël Coward musical and a lecture by Germaine Greer, and though it all adds up to very little it is consistently lively.

A review of "A Fine Romance," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.),...

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Lore Dickstein

Cynthia Propper Seton is all confidence, finesse and refinement. She is an experienced writer and an old pro at turning a neat, elegant phrase. "A Fine Romance" is her third novel and sixth book, but it is a disappointment. Fine points of morality—it is all right to have an affair, but not to break up a marriage—are a familiar strain in Seton's novels. In both previous novels, "The Sea Change of Angela Lewes" … and "The Half-Sisters" …—Seton's best book—married women in their late forties find themselves dissatisfied with the lives they have made for themselves: solid, 20-year-plus marriages, well-reared children, responsible, professional husbands. They inevitably turn to a new mode of living, usually...

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Susannah Clapp

"One has to have a love affair", protests an acerbic lady novelist in A Fine Romance: "They're the only credible climax left." Her view is contested in Cynthia Propper Seton's own novel: first, by the lady novelist's languidly sardonic niece …, and, at the end, by the events of the novel itself. There is, of course, a love affair in A Fine Romance, but its consummation, though satisfactorily climactic for the participants, is not the novel's last word. The "inherent plotlessness" which Virginia Hume sees as dogging the lives of "civilized people" is allowed to continue: it is one of the acutenesses of this observant novel that being unsettled is represented neither as a condition which is necessarily...

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Helen Yglesias

During the violent spring of 1968, Celia Dupont [protagonist of "A Glorious Third"], having reached the 45th year of her life, finds herself at that celebrated point at which all educated middle-class women arrive sooner or later. She is questioning the direction, the value and the meaning of her achievement. Mother of five daughters, wife of Philip, the editor of a liberal political weekly, Celia wants to go forth from the bastion of her ancestral mansion in the Bronx, where she has held happy dominion over family life, to make the last third of her life "a glorious third."…

But how to go about it? In the midst of student strikes and seizures, the war in Vietnam, assassinations, sexual revolution...

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Cynthia Propper Seton is the kind of writer readers like to discover for themselves because she is a rare find. She is unique in her witty and compassionate view of the human comedy underlying the recurrent waves of contemporary movements. She is unique, also, in the deft, compressed, almost aphoristic style and the wry, sharp, funny, but always sympathetic tone with which she reveals it to us….

Celia—wife and mother (of five daughters!), a woman "designed to be good," is 45 as ["A Glorious Third"] opens….

Celia's world is that of the upper-middle-class liberals and intellectuals whose moral fervor fueled and funded the civil rights and peace movements. They exhort department...

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Jocelyn Riley

"A Glorious Third" seems to have all the makings of a good novel, but somehow, the ingredients do not combine into a perfect whole; something is missing. Cynthia Propper Seton is a witty, perceptive, and intelligent observer of the social scene. Her characters are captured with small but telling details; her sense of comic timing makes for superb satire. The social criticism of "A Glorious Third" is exactly on target—pointed yet subtle, intellectual yet down-to-earth, sympathetic yet honest. Nowhere does she resort to the sentimentality or polemical exaggeration that undermine so many contemporary novels of mid-life crisis among the well-meaning, liberal, good-natured middle classes. Her women are no more ridiculous...

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Susannah Clapp

[A Glorious Third] is a novel in which there is a lot of kindness but little room for sentiment; although the main issues are resolved, most predictable dramas are deflected; confronted with dilemmas—about their ages and the age—characters attempt debate before lapsing into turmoil. People do a lot of talking in Mrs Seton's novels and though their words are not always weighty they are always weighed, both by the speakers and by a watchful narrative. This makes for some pernickety prose, in which nothing is allowed to exist without its attendant wryness; it also makes for some good jokes and for a generously inclusive argument. In demonstrating that the "vistas of vulnerability" opened by the self-conscious...

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William H. Pritchard

Over the past six years, Cynthia Seton has produced three deftly-written novels about men and women—and children—in very much the contemporary world of ideas and assumptions about marital fidelity, feminism, "finding" oneself, and all those other important and sometimes boring issues. But in A Fine Romance …, in A Glorious Third …, and now in A Private Life, she refuses ever to be boring about them, since everything is invariably touched by her wit and made thereby lively, alive. The two earlier novels focussed on a husband, then a wife, confronted among other things by sexual temptation and meeting it in separate ways, though interestingly enough each time in Europe. Although Mrs. Seton...

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In the opening two paragraphs of [A Private Life], Seton demolishes Paris to the emotional level of a midwestern village after a Fourth of July celebration. This is but the first of a tour-de-force series of remarkable stylistic feats that will leave the sensitive reader laughing and gasping and seeing the world anew. Seton is at once dry and lush, as spare as a Vogue model yet as precise as a neurosurgeon. Her pithiness extends from style to structure as she weaves a story that keeps veering maddeningly away from what all the characters assume to be The Point and ends up more satisfactorily than either the reader or the characters themselves could have dreamed. And all this is less than 200 pages!…


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Alice Adams

At moments when even the works of one's favorite Victorian novelists seem simply too long and too complex for a pleasant reread, and when one also lacks the stamina for some heavy unread classic—I have begun to face the fact I will never read "Don Quixote"—at those times there is a certain sort of novel for which a certain sort of addicted novel reader will yearn. We want, then, a fairly light but highly intelligent amusement: an early Mary McCarthy novel, say; a Muriel Spark; anything by Barbara Pym—and it is interesting that mostly women come to mind, as fulfillers of this particular need….

Admirers of Cynthia Propper Seton undoubtedly find just those qualities of lightness and intelligence...

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Joan Silber

Cynthia Propper Seton calls her writing "serious comedy"—a somewhat unlovely term for the genre once labeled civilized entertainment, bubbly in style but crusty in moral tone. Fanny Foote, the heroine of [A Private Life], is 26, mildly depressed, and working at a lowly clerical job at an imaginary feminist magazine whose editor, in a fit of brainstorming extravagance, decides to send her to France to write an article about her aunt. (Anyone familiar with the budgets of feminist magazines may find this implausible, but it's better just to let it pass). Fanny's Aunt Carrie runs a pension in the Provençal countryside which is famous for catering to arty and scholarly types; her partner in this enterprise is her...

(The entire section is 519 words.)