Cynthia Propper Seton

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Alice Adams

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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 in her work, and with justification; her touch is light, and she is a highly intelligent writer.

"A Private Life" is Seton's eighth book, fifth novel, the other three being collections of essays. "A Fine Romance" is perhaps the best known of the other novels, and it contains a favorite Seton situation: a longstanding "good" marriage between two loyal and intelligent, well-intentioned people is suddenly confronted with an upsetting (usually sexual) and novel situation; in this case everything occurs during a trip to Sicily, when the couple in question have as traveling companions a group that includes a crafty woman writer, two beautiful young women, and an attractive, wily older man—a little more than someone for everyone. But sex, in fact, plays an unusually these days negative role in Seton's books; it is almost never the force behind anyone's changing his or her life, and is, generally, not one of the stronger marriage bonds. Which is, as I say, an unusual view, and one that some readers may find unsettling—or, worse, just slightly unconvincing.

"A Fine Romance" is a lighter, brighter book than either "The Half Sisters" or "A Glorious Third," which respectively precede and succeed it, although all of her novels could be called very good reads. She makes us almost believe in her longstanding, tried-and-true marriages, and almost wish that we knew such people….

["A Private Life"] provides considerable entertainment of a fairly elevated nature. It is very nearly, as one of its characters puts her own yearning, "elegant, intellectual, sensual, but with a high moral tone." And this novel, along with Seton's other books, certainly approaches the excellence of those books mentioned earlier, by McCarthy, Spark or Pym. And if the comparison is somewhat unfair it should also be considered flattering; I intentionally set a high standard.

The differences, however, are instructive, I believe. What makes Spark's "Memento Mori," to take an obvious example, a better book than any of those of Seton that I have so far read is a question, in my view, of illumination. One's ideas of life among the very old rich, English are enlarged by "Memento Mori"; Spark, in her eccentric way, instructs—and with none of her characters is there the smallest question of credibility.

One does not gain new views, or larger ones of human life from the novels of Cynthia Seton—but very likely that is an unfair demand, from such light, bright and intelligent novels. It is simply one's wish, both greedy and critical, that a very good book, or books, should be even better.

Alice Adams, "Seton's Light, Bright Touch Raises Comic Novel to High Level" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Bookworld, Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1982, p. 5 [revised by the author for this publication].

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