Francine du Plessix Gray Gray, Francine du Plessix - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francine du Plessix Gray 1930-

French-born American novelist, biographer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Gray's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 22.

Gray is best known for her compelling biographical portraits of such diverse historical figures as Louis Colet, Simone Weil, and the Marquis de Sade. She has also published several nonfiction works that focus on a variety of social issues, including modern Catholicism and the living conditions of women in the former Soviet Union. Widely regarded as a skilled and objective writer, Gray's work often places a firm emphasis on feminist beliefs and psychoanalytic interpretation. She has also published three novels—Lovers and Tyrants (1976), World without End (1981), and October Blood (1985).

Biographical Information

Gray was born on September 25, 1930, in the French Embassy in Warsaw, Poland. At the time, her father was a member of the French diplomatic corps. Her father died as a member of the Free French Forces during World War II, prompting Gray and her Russian-born mother to emigrate to United States in 1941. In 1948 she attended Bryn Mawr College and later earned her B.A. from Barnard College in 1952; she became a naturalized U.S. citizen the same year. She worked as a reporter in New York City at United Press International and was also employed as a writer and editor at several magazines and publishing companies. In 1970 she published her first work, Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism. During this period, Gray served as a visiting professor at the City University of New York. Subsequently, she worked as a visiting lecturer at Yale University in 1981 and as an adjunct professor at Columbia University in 1983. Gray was awarded the National Catholic Book Award in 1971 for Divine Disobedience and received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1991. She holds honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, The City University of New York, and several other universities, and has been decorated by the French government as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Gray has continued to contribute articles, stories, and reviews to a number of periodicals, including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York Review of Books, and New Republic.

Major Works

Gray's first work, Divine Disobedience, employs a crisp journalistic writing style to explore contemporary radicalism within the Catholic Church. Lovers and Tyrants focuses on the semi-autobiographical story of a young woman named Stephanie. The novel follows Stephanie throughout different stages of her life—from her oppressive childhood in Paris to her experiences in an American boarding school. Stephanie eventually becomes a journalist and spurns traditional romantic relationships, preferring to follow her own ambitions and modes of living. The work centers around Stephanie's maturation and quest for personal liberation. Gray's next novel, World without End, focuses on the relationship of three middle-age friends who reunite to tour Russia together. October Blood is a satire of the world of high fashion that follows three generations of women who work in the clothing industry. In 1990, Gray published Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, a record of her observations of Soviet life and the changing role of women in contemporary Soviet society. Gray explores the lives of a diverse cross-section of Soviet women and discusses the societal pressures placed on these women by the Russian culture and government. In 1994, Gray published Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet—Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse, a biography of the nineteenth-century French writer, Louise Colet. Colet published several works, including La Jeunesse de Mirabeau, but she is best known in many circles for being the mistress of Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist who wrote Madame Bovary. Gray followed Rage and Fire with a biography of the controversial eighteenth-century French writer, the Marquis de Sade, in At Home with the Marquis de Sade (1998). Sade was a French aristocrat who was jailed for acts of sexual perversion. While in prison, Sade published several graphically erotic novels that were distributed secretly throughout France. Most recently, Gray published Simone Weil (2001), a biography of the twentieth-century writer, political activist, and philosopher.

Critical Reception

Gray's novels have been generally well-received for their striking characterization and melodic prose. Lovers and Tyrants met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, although several critics took issue with the concluding chapters of the novel. A number of reviewers felt the ending dragged on incessantly and lapsed into fantasy. Although October Blood received mixed reviews, the novel was applauded by many critics for its precise and biting satire of the fashion world. Soviet Women was embraced by the general public, becoming a best seller, despite sharply divided critical reaction to the book. Several reviewers praised Gray's deft storytelling and cogent observations of Soviet life, but others questioned the work's focus on upper-class bourgeois Soviet women and did not feel the book representative of the full range of Soviet female experience. In Gray's biographical works, critics have noted a recurring emphasis on feminist issues, with some accusing Gray of manipulating historical details for her own political ends. For example, in Rage and Fire, Gray emphasizes Louise Colet's role as muse and confidant to Gustave Flaubert and argues that Colet deserves a more significant critical reputation. This is in direct opposition to many critics who have argued that Colet was a minor literary figure, unworthy of such analysis and attention. Critics have also taken issue with the significance that Gray placed on the Marquis de Sade's wife, Renée Pélagie de Montreuil, in At Home with the Marquis de Sade. Despite such observations, Gray has been commended by numerous reviewers for her skilled use of psychoanalysis in her portrayal of Sade.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism (nonfiction) 1970

Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress (nonfiction) 1972

Lovers and Tyrants (novel) 1976

World without End (novel) 1981

October Blood (novel) 1985

Adam and Eve and the City: Selected Nonfiction (nonfiction) 1987

Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope (nonfiction) 1990

Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet—Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse (biography) 1994

At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life (biography) 1998

Simone Weil (biography) 2001

Francine du Plessix Gray with Catherine Petroski (interview date December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gray is Back in Fashion,” Saturday Review, Vol. 11, No. 6, December, 1985, pp. 52–56.

[In the following interview, Gray discusses the stylistic and thematic aspects of her novel October Blood.]

Francine du Plessix Gray's third novel, October Blood, takes place mainly in the ultra-urban, high-powered New York of High Fashion. Gray knows the territory well. Her mother, as Tatiana of Saks, was a designer of hats; her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, became editorial director of Condé Nast. Today Francine Gray lives a quiet life in rural Connecticut with her husband, painter Cleve Gray.

October Blood takes place, Gray says,...

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Francine du Plessix Gray with Regina Weinreich (interview date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Art of Fiction XCVI: Francine du Plessix Gray,” Paris Review, Vol. 29, No. 103, Summer, 1987, pp. 132–72.

[In the following interview, Gray discusses her background, the autobiographical elements of her fiction, and her creative process.]

I first met Francine du Plessix Gray in Morocco in 1983. Gray had interrupted the completion of her third novel, October Blood, and was en route to Paris to finish her articles about Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie and the French Resistance, which would appear in Vanity Fair that fall and for which she would receive the National Magazine Award for Best Reporting.

Gray was born in the...

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Jane E. Good (review date 11 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 20, No. 10, March 11, 1990, pp. 1, 10.

[In the following review, Good offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

Displays of brightly painted wooden dolls decorate souvenir shops throughout the Soviet Union. Twist one at the waist and out tumbles a succession of smaller and smaller dolls, identical virginal women nestled one into the next. More than child's toy or quaint example of folk art, the “matrioshka” doll is a metaphor for what Francine du Plessix Gray terms “the sovereign matriarchies” that the twin forces of ideology and history have forged in contemporary...

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Marni Jackson (review date 9 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in Maclean's, Vol. 103, No. 15, April 9, 1990, p. 71.

[In the following review, Jackson offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

In her riveting portrait of Soviet women, Francine du Plessix Gray combines loving knowledge of her subject—she was raised in Paris by Russian women—with an American novelist's gleeful sense of irony. And the ironies abound in Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, a candid depiction of post-glasnost females—superwomen of a sort never imagined by Western feminism. To begin with, feminism does not yet exist in the Soviet Union (although high fashion does). In its...

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Tatyana Tolstaya (review date 31 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Notes from Underground,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 9, May 31, 1990, pp. 3–7.

[In the following positive review, Tolstaya discusses Gray's insights on Soviet life in Soviet Women.]

During the two weeks I spent in the United States at least forty people asked me: “And what do you think about this book?” The person asking the question would simply point at it, without mentioning the author or title—the assumption seemed to be that it was obviously the book worth talking about at the moment. It was given to me twice during my stay.

The most important thing about Soviet Women for me is that it rings true. It...

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Katrina Vanden Heuvel (review date 4 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Glasnost for Women?,” in Nation, Vol. 250, No. 22, June 4, 1990, pp. 773–79.

[In the following mixed review, Vanden Heuvel places Soviet Women within the changing political, cultural, and socioeconomic context of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century.]

Seventy-three years after the Russian Revolution, Soviet women are confronting a powerful backlash against its emancipation of women. Glasnost is allowing Soviet citizens to voice patriarchal prejudices once banned as bourgeois or counterrevolutionary. The state-controlled news media, for example, frequently blame “overemancipated, masculinized women” for social ills from...

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Wilson Quarterly (review date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 93–94.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

Francine du Plessix Gray, an American novelist of partly Russian descent, investigates [in Soviet Women] a side of Soviet reality little known to most Western readers—the world of the “second sex.” Much of what she reports will come as revelation. How many Americans know, for example, that only five percent of Soviet women have access to birth-control pills or IUDs, or that the main form of birth control in the Soviet Union is abortion, or that the...

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Elizabeth Kristol (review date July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in American Spectator, Vol. 23, No. 7, July, 1990, pp. 40–41.

[In the following mixed review of Soviet Women, Kristol criticizes the limited range of Soviet women interviewed for the book and Gray's lack of verification and counterbalancing research.]

In his 1864 novel What Is to Be Done? the Russian utopian socialist N. G. Chernyshevsky set out to depict the ideal marriage between an enlightened “new man” and “new woman” of the future: husband and wife would occupy separate living quarters, shun all sexual contact, and confine their intercourse (social, that is) to a mutually...

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Catherine Porter (review date 10 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Female Essence,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 3, No. 113, August 10, 1990, p. 38.

[In the following review, Porter offers a positive assessment of Soviet Women.]

Francine du Plessix Gray's maternal Russian origins have given her a lifelong fascination with Russian women, and, during the winter of 1988, she embarked on a month-long journey of self-discovery, travelling around the Soviet Union to compile the interviews for [Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope].

In the country that pioneered legal abortions, active childbirth techniques and sexual revolution, Soviet scholars are now beginning for the first time since the 1920s...

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Jean Bethke Elshtain (essay date Fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Women as Proletarians,” in Partisan Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 640–43.

[In the following essay, Elshtain describes Soviet Women as a fascinating and illuminating view of Soviet life.]

Marx didn't have a whole lot to say about women. One passage from his essay, “Private Property and Communism,” acquired a totemistic status among Marxist feminists. Marx argued rather murkily that the nature of a society's relationships between males and females demonstrates the “extent to which the human essence has become nature to man, or to which nature to him has become the human essence of man. From this relationship one can therefore judge...

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Rochelle Ruthchild (review date December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gray Eminence,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 3, December, 1990, pp. 25–26.

[In the following unfavorable review, Ruthchild criticizes Gray's emphasis on the Soviet upper class in Soviet Women and argues that the work includes many factual errors, stereotypes, and omissions.]

It is evening at the eyrie of the Eagle Forum. Phyllis Schlafly and her aide-de-camp Barbara are working late …

Barbara: Phyllis, let's join the MacDonald's and Pepsi folks and go to Moscow to witness the triumph of capitalism. You know, the stock exchanges are about to reopen, the Cold War is over, and best of all, according...

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Miriam Dinerman (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope, in Affilia, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 97–98.

[In the following positive review, Dinerman discusses the predominant thematic concerns of Soviet Women.]

This book [Soviet Women] is a delight to read. As one who speaks Russian, is descended from Russians, and who writes with sharp insight, Francine du Plessix Gray is a wonderful guide. She interviews women all over the Soviet Union in different walks of life, of different ages. I felt as if I, too, had met these women, heard them speak about husbands and children, their work and workplace colleagues, and issues women face as they work; I felt...

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Isabelle de Courtivron (review date 20 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Her Sentimental Education,” in Washington Post Book World, March 20, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following positive review, Courtivron praises Gray's complex portrayal of Louise Colet in Rage and Fire.]

When Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary in the early 1850's, he chronicled this arduous, painstaking process in a remarkable series of letters to his lover, Louise Colet. He also addressed to her his reflections on the craft of literature (“The author in his work must be like God in the universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible”)—maxims that have become sacred to generations of critics, writers, professors and graduate students. As a result,...

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Richard Eder (review date 24 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Resurrection of a Woman Both Scorned and Beloved,” in Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1994, p. 4.

[In the following review, Eder offers a mixed assessment of Rage and Fire.]

Francine du Plessix Gray begins her resurrection of Louise Colet, a minor 19th-Century French writer now known mainly as Flaubert's lover and literary correspondent, with two dramatic scenes.

The first describes their last meeting. Colet furiously berates Flaubert for infidelity, kicking him rhythmically in the shins to make her points, while he fantasizes about braining her with a fireplace log.

In the second scene, toward the end of his life, he burns...

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Denis Donoghue (review date 9 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Flaubert's Parrot,” in New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 19, May 9, 1994, pp. 39–41.

[In the following mixed review, Donoghue considers Gray's examination of misogyny in Rage and Fire.]

Louise Colet is mainly known as Flaubert's lover—“his one great love,” according to Francine du Plessix Gray [in Rage and Fire]—and the recipient of his most remarkable love letters. Otherwise she is a footnote in French literary history. Gray does not make large claims for her as a poet, but she plans to turn her into a personage. She hopes to do this by presenting her as a feminist and a victim “whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men.” Another...

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Julian Barnes (review date 26 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Romancing Flaubert,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 10, May 26, 1994, pp. 12–16.

[In the following review, Barnes offers a positive assessment of Rage and Fire, calling the biography “heartfelt and impassioned.”]

Who burned Louise Colet's letters to Flaubert? For a century it was taken for granted that the destroyer was Flaubert's niece Caroline, the inheritor of his literary estate. Caroline, the stiff, correct, high-bourgeois protector, “la dame si bien,” who in publishing her uncle's correspondence cut out any passages she deemed intimate or indecent, suppressed uncomplimentary opinions, changed his punctuation, and...

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Barbara Meister (review date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Woman of Valor & Value,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 22–23.

[In the following positive review, Meister compliments Gray's portrayal of Colet in Rage and Fire.]

The would-be biographer of Louise Colet faces a dilemma: Colet herself wanted and expected her contemporaries—and posterity—to judge her solely on the basis of her literary output; she resented innuendos suggesting that she traded on her beauty and sexuality to further her literary career and, even when in real financial need, refused any stipend she suspected of not being predicated on her merits as an author. The last thing she would have expected from the...

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Anita Brookner (review date 21 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On High Heels Up Vesuvius,” in London Review of Books, July 21, 1994, p. 18.

[In the following review, Brookner examines Colet's relationship with Gustave Flaubert as depicted in Rage and Fire.]

In October 1879, Flaubert, then aged 57, invited Maupassant to dinner, informing him that there was a purpose behind this invitation. He wanted to burn some letters, and he did not want to do so alone. After a particularly good meal, Flaubert brought a heavy suitcase into his study and began to throw packets of letters into the fire: occasionally reading passages from them in his booming voice. This process went on until 4 a.m., not an unusual hour for Flaubert....

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Gabriele Annan (review date 22 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Indomitable Emmerdeuse,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 1994, p. 13.

[In the following mixed review of Rage and Fire, Annan argues that “inside Gray's combative treatise a spirited and sympathetic biography is trying to get out.”]

Louise Colet was Flaubert's mistress from 1846 to 1855, and he wrote some of his most memorable letters to her. She was “a literary star” in the Paris of her time. Her life, especially her love-life, was exceptionally eventful; her vast literary output mediocre. She is well worth a biography, though perhaps not quite such a long one as this.

Rage and Fire starts with a...

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Roger Shattuck (review date 15 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Sight of Evil,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 15, 1998, pp. 10–11.

[In the following review, Shattuck addresses Gray's sympathetic portrayal of Sade in At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

We sometimes learn more from the sight of evil than from the example of the good.

—PASCAL [from “Pensées”]

A few decades ago, more than one edition of Webster's dictionary carried a concise entry: “Sade, Marquis de (1780–1814). French soldier and pervert.” It's a hard line to beat. No leers. No drum rolls. Four words to fit the man into the niche he deserves....

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D. Keith Mano (review date 31 December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “This Will Hurt,” in National Review, Vol. 50, No. 25, December 31, 1998, p. 44.

[In the following review of At Home with the Marquis de Sade, Mano explores the role of sado-masochism in Sade's life and work.]

As Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel: “The history and tragedy of our era really begin with [Sade]. … Our times have blended, in a curious manner, his dream of a universal republic and his technique of degradation” (ellipses provided by Francine du Plessix Gray). Sade's technique was predominantly theatrical. He had always wanted to be a playwright, not a lowly pornographer, and, as a result, his erotic fantasies never seem quite...

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Robert Darnton (review date 14 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Real Marquis,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, January 14, 1999, pp. 19–24.

[In the following review, Darnton classifies At Home with the Marquis de Sade as a negative biography, in that Gray unsympathetically portrays her subject and instead elevates his wife—Renée Pélagie de Montreuil—to the role of heroine of the biography.]


A few years ago a sharp-eyed researcher spotted a curious dossier about an eighteenth-century traffic jam. The streets of Paris often clogged with gridlock under the Old Regime, because carriages drove on either side of the road and got stuck in face-offs, unable to back...

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Francis X. Rocca (review date March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Taming the Savage Noble,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 283, No. 3, March, 1999, pp. 108–14.

[In the following review, Rocca argues that Gray only presents the domesticated and sympathetic sides of Sade in At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

The first time the Marquis de Sade went to prison, in 1763, it was under a royal lettre de cachet signed by Louis XV, on charges of “blasphemy and incitement to sacrilege.” Thirty years later, after the Revolution, the aristocrat nearly went to the guillotine for having “corresponded with enemies of the republic.” Finally, Napoleon's government put him in a mental hospital under a diagnosis of “libertine...

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Douglas Johnson (review date 3 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Wicked Old Trouper,” in Spectator, April 3, 1999, p. 35.

[In the following review, Johnson offers a favorable assessment of At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

In 1912 a well-known man-about-town, a certain Armand de Rochefort, was invited to a special theatrical performance at Charenton, just outside Paris. This was a centre for the healing of the insane which was much favoured by aristocratic families who needed to put their relatives into care. During the pre-theatre dinner Rochefort was very impressed by an elderly man sitting near to him who had the venerable air that imposed respect and whose conversation was marked by a spiritual verve and richness...

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Gillian Gill (review date June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Black Sheep of the Family,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 9, June, 1999, pp. 17–18.

[In the following review, Gill examines recent biographies of Sade, including At Home with the Marquis de Sade.]

Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade was a man monstrously alone. His aloneness is famously a matter of the years he spent behind bars—thirteen of them in prison without trial in mid-life, and another thirteen in a madhouse at the end. But when a free man he was as alone as in a cell—perhaps more so, since in his 74 years of life Sade made few friends, and kept none. Men of his own class seem always to have disliked and avoided him; any male...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Arana-Ward, Marie. “Francine du Plessix Gray.” Washington Post Book World (13 February 1994): 10.

Arana-Ward provides a brief overview of Gray's life and body of work.

Collins, Ronald K. L. “Waiting for God.” Washington Post (27 May 2001): T15.

Collins contends that Simone Weil is a “sophisticated introduction” to author Weil's life.

Fortescue, William. Review of Rage and Fire, by Francine du Plessix Gray. History 81, No. 262 (April 1996): 288.

Fortescue praises Gray for her portrayal of Colet in Rage and Fire, but criticizes...

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