Cynthia Propper Seton

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Joan Silber

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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 friend Lutécie, and the editor compares them to Stein and Toklas—"a really viable homosexual model there." Or maybe not; part of Fanny's mission is to find out whether the pair is gay (no one knows) and to dig up whatever other gossip is handy.

There does seem to be some mystery surrounding the redoubtable Aunt Carrie. Everyone in the family has a different explanation about why she ran off to Europe 15 years before at age 34, abandoning a Boston academic career. (p. 46)

Fanny dashes off to France, where she is reunited with her aunt—a woman of good humor but strong character, who still makes everyone dress for dinner—and gets to meet the aging but ever-charismatic Lutécie, former opera star and grand hostess, who is worried about Carrie's new desire to go home. (pp. 46-7)

Fanny scraps the idea of writing an article which would violate her stalwart aunt's private life, and spends her time exploring the local churches with Titus Sidney, a knowledgeable and balding young man so initially unappealing that it is obvious he and Fanny are destined to fall in love. Anyway, there's nothing to write an article about. Carrie's straight as an arrow….

Fanny's trip to France is meant to be the final step in her own growing up, solidifying her character through intensive exposure to medieval architecture and high-minded eccentrics—an antidote to all that transitory, trendy stuff back in New York. On returning, she quits her job and agrees (after a few complications) to marry Titus. They are both going to teach at a private school with unorthodox rules (no jeans, no semiotics) and intend to marry without first going to bed.

I must say that if I had known this was where the novel was heading, I wouldn't have enjoyed the journey quite so much. A Private Life's blithely acerbic tone, seems (till the end) to be naturally evenhanded, unsparing of everybody. All sorts of details tickle the writer's satirical fancy, some of them irrelevant to the plot but too toothsome to resist…. Seton writes an artful, stylish, funny prose, wry and insightful; her moral, fortunately, comes at the end, where it can be disregarded. (p. 47)

Joan Silber, in a review of "A Private Life" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1982), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 21, May 25, 1982, pp. 46-7.

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