Cynthia Propper Seton is all confidence, finesse and refinement. She is an experienced writer and an old pro at turning a neat, elegant phrase. "A Fine Romance" is her third novel and sixth book, but it is a disappointment. Fine points of morality—it is all right to have an affair, but not to break up a marriage—are a familiar strain in Seton's novels. In both previous novels, "The Sea Change of Angela Lewes" … and "The Half-Sisters" …—Seton's best book—married women in their late forties find themselves dissatisfied with the lives they have made for themselves: solid, 20-year-plus marriages, well-reared children, responsible, professional husbands. They inevitably turn to a new mode of living, usually involving a lover, a fledgling career, and/or women's liberation. It is the mid-life crisis given a feminist tint. Seton speaks for a generation whose voice is rarely heard in recent women's fiction; she belies the popular and mistaken notion that feminism belongs only to the young, who usually have little to lose.
But in "A Fine Romance," Seton focuses on a man—53-year-old Gerard Winters, M.D., an intelligent but rather boring fellow undergoing a "climacteric of the mind, not of the body." Winters, his wife Kitty, and four of their six children (fecundity runs rampant through Seton's novels) are on tour in Sicily, a trip they have taken to "relieve the very plotlessness of their lives." But the backdrop of a beautiful ancient civilization does little to enliven these dull, uninteresting characters. Kitty Winters, we are told, is a "new, primary, autonomous" woman of 47, but aside from reading Fernand Braudel's "The Mediterranean" on the tour bus—a rather heavy tome for sightseeing—she makes little impression. The conversations she and Gerard have with the other tour members—none of them memorable—are stuffy, hyperintellectual and boring.
The one light moment in the novel comes when moralistic Gerard, after 25 years of unadulterated monogamy, seduces another woman. Juxtaposed against the ironic but schmaltzy lyrics of Jerome Kern's "A Fine Romance," the steadfast, exasperatingly dependable Gerard deludes himself into thinking he is "a hot tomato." A hot tomato? He is more like a cabbage.
While Seton does not satirize Gerard, she denies him the compassionate insight she lavishes on the female protagonists of her previous novels. It is as if the author, in the words of one of her characters, "had always expected more from men [and] was often disappointed." If Gerard has failed Seton, perhaps she should go back to what evokes her best writing: the life crises of women. (pp. 18, 22)
Lore Dickstein, in a review of "A Fine Romance," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1976, pp. 18, 22.