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 and the dozens of other upheavals of the late 1960's and early 70's, Celia embarks on a personal quest for knowledge. Her goal is to restock the pool of knowledge ideally shared by all educated people: "If by some miracle this country is restored, is regenerated—well, then, there I'll be, a national resource!"
Celia is speaking to a male friend (her husband's friend as well, naturally) who is an intellectual (naturally). He responds by pointing out that when Proust retreated to his room to write his great work, he did so "to prove that his life had been worthy of being lived," a concept that so moves Celia and her companion that the spiritual, intellectual and physical yearning converge, and (naturally) they "came into each other's arms."
Naturally would seem to be the wrong word. We are not only in the cool, ironic atmosphere of a comedy of manners, but in the realm of an elegant practitioner of the genre—in a place where nature and blood passions don't stand a chance. Celia and intellectual Peter never make it into bed, or even into a shared room on an idyllic European tour. Nature is finessed by Cynthia Propper Seton's highly polished style, by the fine edge of her wit and by an excessive use of literary allusion. (She not only invokes Proust but also George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Jane Austen, Galsworthy, Joyce, Herzen, Yeats, Ruskin and others.) For Celia, who fell in love with her husband because he quoted Browning in his love letters and because he dared to like Chopin and Tchaikovsky at a moment when they "were definitely out," the sexual revolution is experienced as an opportunity "to be roused by a man's mind." Not consummation, but the avoidance of cliché is what they devoutly seek. Celia doesn't like to "follow the crowd," especially if "everybody has a lover."…
There is more to the novel than marital infidelity—consummated or not. With light, deft strokes, Mrs. Seton describes the strains of raising five daughters; the stresses of opinion-making on Philip as he wrestles with the political and familial problems of endorsing Hubert H. Humphrey for the 1968 elections; the humor in a husband-wife confrontation in which nothing meshes. And she pokes fun at the on-the-make young women liberationists.
But on its most sober level, "A Glorious Third" probes something deeply felt about relationships, apparently summed up for the author in the beautiful quote from E. M. Forster with which the book closes. Forster, who knows about passion, can dare the simplicity of his emotions when he observes: "Personal relationships seem to me to be the most real things on the surface of the earth…. We are more complicated, also richer than we knew and affection grows more difficult than it used to be, and also more glorious."
Apart from the weakness of ending a work of fiction with a quotation from another novelist, the sentiment Forster expresses seems inappropriate to the whole tone of the story. Mrs. Seton's loving scorn of her "humane" intellectuals invites no Forsterian response, but rather, at best, a lofty and amused affection. Despite all the author's skill, some readers will finish the book intensely irritated by the world of its essentially light-hearted, self-satisfied, comfortable creatures.
Helen Yglesias, "Personal Relations," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1979, p. 14.