Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498
Stephanie, the protagonist and first-person narrator. She is ignored initially by her “flapper” mother, a beautiful Russian émigré who turns her over to a Russian émigré governess. Later, her father, an impoverished aristocrat, is killed in World War II. Stephanie is thus rendered insecure about love. She behaves as a “good girl” to win the love of her mother and her husband, but she finds that all of her various “lovers” are also “tyrants” who limit her freedom and potential. Her life and the novel are about her struggle to reconcile the opposed values of stable love and freedom.
Lydia Romanovna Mishanskaya (Mishka)
Lydia Romanovna Mishanskaya (Mishka), Stephanie’s governess from the time she is four years old until she is nine. She is the first “tyrant” in Stephanie’s eyes. She is a strict, emotionally repressed, unmarried woman whose hypochondria and needy love make Stephanie dependent and fearful.
Stephanie’s father, a conservative French viscount who is living in Paris and is estranged from Stephanie’s mother. He is a pilot who is killed early in World War II. This news is withheld from Stephanie, who is unable until much later to grieve properly for the distant parent she idolized.
Stephanie’s mother, a beautiful Russian who escaped to Paris in the 1920’s. She is obsessed with social class, status, and achievement. Initially bored by Stephanie as a small child, she becomes an attentive mother in New York City after their escape from German-occupied Paris. She is a tyrant in the mind of Stephanie, who finds it hard to please her.
Joan Riley, a student at Stephanie’s exclusive girls’ school in New York City. Like Stephanie, she is a newcomer from an undistinguished background. She shares with Stephanie a love of opera and art. She is Stephanie’s first real friend.
Louis Bonaparte, an impoverished Frenchman with whom Stephanie has a torrid affair during her first year in Paris after her graduation from college. Louis’ pedigree, summed up in his famous name, is pleasing to Stephanie’s mother. Louis tyrannizes Stephanie by relating solely to her.
Paul, Stephanie’s lover since college. She initially rejected him but ultimately marries him. He is reserved and withdrawn, preferring country life and complete order. He is an excellent husband but cannot fulfill Stephanie’s desire for growth, change, and conversation.
Aunt Charlotte, one of many French relatives of Stephanie living in Brittany. Stephanie finally comes to terms with the group as an adult, when she visits her father’s grave.
Gregory Hillsman, a Jesuit who leaves the order but continues to act as Stephanie’s confessor and spiritual adviser.
Elijah Stewart, a childlike photographer in his early twenties. Stephanie travels with him around the American Southwest. He is a homosexual but has an affair with Stephanie, who by this time has left her husband after undergoing surgery for possibly terminal cancer.