William H. Pritchard

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

Over the past six years, Cynthia Seton has produced three deftly-written novels about men and women—and children—in very much the contemporary world of ideas and assumptions about marital fidelity, feminism, "finding" oneself, and all those other important and sometimes boring issues. But in A Fine Romance …, in A Glorious Third …, and now in A Private Life, she refuses ever to be boring about them, since everything is invariably touched by her wit and made thereby lively, alive. The two earlier novels focussed on a husband, then a wife, confronted among other things by sexual temptation and meeting it in separate ways, though interestingly enough each time in Europe. Although Mrs. Seton is perfectly at home in writing about America, her characters have the leisure and the desire to go to Europe where they play out their not-so-passionate scene. The new novel focuses on a daughter, M.E.F. ("Fanny") Foote, who gets sent by a glossy magazine to do a piece on her aunt, the "private life" of the book's title, who abruptly left an academic career some years back and settled in southern France with her female friend, Lutécie. The magazine's editors smell a lesbian possibility and pay Fanny's way over there so she can get the goods on Aunt Carrie, emancipated before her time. But Fanny has other ideas, and anyway things are not at all what they may have seemed to be. (pp. 168-69)

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[Seton's narrator] is very much concerned with ideas and with trying to see things as they are. Yet both these activities are impossible for her (though not always for her characters) unless they are seen ironically. So the book's opening paragraph takes us to the top of the Pompidou museum in Paris "through the maze of brisk businesslike rooms whose walls were filled with high-colored, rage-filled Berlin paintings—Grosz, Kokoschka, Köllwitz, Beckmann—Germans indicting Germans, very gratifying." It's those last two words which do the trick, alerting us that not to pay attention to nuance, but read for "story" rather, is to miss the whole tone and distinctive pleasure of the book. A strong, funny narrator is very much in evidence as she describes Fanny's parent's top floor Beacon Hill apartment, with a kitchen window through which a bit of the Charles can be seen: "It was a grand sight, the only view in the house. Fortunately both parents had a consuming interest in food and were in a position to look out of this window a lot." The bland expressions "were in a position to," the homely "a lot," pretend not to know what a good joke they're making. And a serious reflection about how in marriage two people are no longer intimidated by the outside world, ends up like this: "The endurance of a union becomes almost entirely an internal matter and depends upon the fierce sort of will Gordon Liddy has—says he has." Gordon Liddy's turning up here is fine enough, but the sly "says he has" makes it even better. Even near the end of the book, when Fanny discovers that her aunt's love affair was heterosexual after all and she feels both relieved, yet distressed that it mattered enough to make her feel relieved, we are given this comment: "Vaguely she hoped she would have risen above her smaller self, and in the meantime there was no need to bother." In the midst of so much satisfactory writing, it mattered less that (for me at least) the dénouement in Europe is less than inevitable, even somewhat diffuse in its presentation. This may have to do with the fact that, like Howells, Mrs. Seton looks on her own stories without solemnity, and is therefore wary of bringing things together in rousing good ways. Subtlety is the mode, and surprise is usually the result. She should be read. (p. 169)

William H. Pritchard, "Novel Discomforts and Delights," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1982 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 159-76.∗

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