(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Lovers and Tyrants succeeds most pleasingly at the level of the sentence. Gray’s fine prose portraits, particularly those of her French relatives and “tyrants,” are marked by language so carefully wrought, so visual and precise, as to be almost hypnotizing in its effect. The reader is carried along by its musicality, as in the opening sentence to the opening chapter: “My childhood lies behind me muted, opaque and drab, the color of gruel and of woolen gaiters, its noises muted and monotonous as a sleeper’s pulse.” The tone is intimate, the relationship to the reader close and personal. The final simile of the sentence, “muted and monotonous as a sleeper’s pulse,” is typical of Gray’s imagery, succinct and simple in technique but also immediately accessible and powerful in its implications.

Gray is fond of using animal imagery to convey character. Her governess, nicknamed Mishka (“little mouse” in Russian) has “rodent-like” eyes, and her face is transformed by the ravages of old age into the “eyeless head of a small water animal, a newt or a slug.” Stephanie worships her mother “as silently as a rat, always fearing to be brutalized by some gesture of dismissal.” Her insensitive and physically powerful school friend Janet has a “mastifflike face,” while her self-centered lover Louis has a “powerful, mastiff-jawed head.” Her aunt Olga has jowls that “shake like two bowls of gelatine, her tiny porcine eyes . . . almost obliterated by the assault of her round glistening flesh.” Her future husband Paul follows her around with “the lowering manner of a mother cow,” and Stephanie misses his sheltering presence “as the canary misses its cage.” Louis’ pretentious and dictatorial mother leads her family on the boardwalk in a “regal file like an aged chicken.” As with this last image, Gray’s metaphor and simile always rise above the conventional, evoking a visual or sensory particularity that...

(The entire section is 804 words.)