Cynthia Propper Seton Jocelyn Riley - Essay

Jocelyn Riley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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 than her men; her men no more ogres than her women. This absence of stereotyping by gender is a refreshing change.

Seton, in fact, seems to go back to an earlier era of good-natured social satire in novels. The tone of "A Glorious Third" has all the superficial gloss, wit, and charm of a novel by Henry James or Jane Austen. Celia Webb Dupont is married to Philip Dupont, who is the editor of an "old liberal weekly" magazine called "The State of the Union." The Duponts have raised five daughters in a big old family mansion in the Bronx, and have reached middle age….

Lily Tucker is a young feminist who has just met the Duponts…. And then there is Peter Jacobs, a history professor who is also a recent acquaintance of the Duponts….

Given these four main characters, the plot is fairly obvious; Philip falls—briefly—in love with Lily; Celia falls—briefly—in love with Peter. The Duponts extricate themselves and get back together, somewhat stronger for the experience. The novel even ends with the traditional comic ending: a wedding (of their daughter). Much intelligent social observation goes into fleshing out this time-worn plot.

But as one finishes "A Glorious Third," there is a feeling of hunger, akin to the feeling one has after eating nothing but candy for supper. Bons mots, like bonbons, are dessert, not the main meal. "A Glorious Third" shimmers and delights, but it does not finally satisfy. For all her insight and skill with words, Seton has failed to make her characters live for the reader.

Jocelyn Riley, "Middle Muddle" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, April 18, 1979, p. 19.