Cynthia Propper Seton

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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 store owners to use black models, make new and interesting friends at McCarthy fundraising rallies and spend Sundays at peace vigils in the Bronx. She and her editor husband Philip seem ideally suited to each other but "were now enduring a tension of considerable stress for them over the most intimate issue of them all: the choice of a Democratic presidential candidate." Actually Philip is also feeling the stress of middle-aged sexual yearnings focused on Lily, a young, vivid, and self-centered feminist writer….

[There is an] underlying seriousness with which [Seton] perceives our dilemmas and self-deceptions. Her Celia becomes a witness to the plight of those women who, aware of the need for struggle, are nevertheless reluctant to abandon the deepening of being and experience to be found in the family and the succession of the generations. Her placid plan for her personal future becomes complicated by the modern possibility of sexual adventure in mid-life. Her personal response will, perhaps, surprise readers.

It must be noted that, as a novel—a novel must, after all, tell a story—this book bogs down a bit in the second part. Perhaps it is because the setting and the characters seem a bit stock. Provence and the Riviera have provided a background for many idylls, middle-aged or otherwise. And the aging, unconventional free spirit (Celia's mother, Agnes) and her friends, the faithful and somewhat bitchy homosexual duo, are familiar figures. Celia and Peter Jacobs seem to fade in their company.

The reader's interest will quicken again aptly enough in the final third of the book. The freshness of the author's insight and irony plays like summer lightning around the final confrontation between Lily and Celia talking about lesbianism and abortion, thus rescuing the dialogue from the prevailing cant. And for this reader, at least, the final chapter, in which the succession of the generations is resumed, affirms—at least for the moment—Philip's conclusion that those of us alive today "are an aristocracy, an aristocracy of survivors."

Abigail McCarthy, "A Woman Designed to Be Good," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), February 25, 1979, p. M3.

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