Our Father Characters
The novel's cast is an ensemble; the four sisters have equally important roles. While at first glimpse each may seem to match a stereotype — the brilliant, overachieving oldest daughter; the cheery, uncomplicated housewife; the prickly Chicana lesbian — within a few pages they become so real and complicated that the stereotypes fall apart. Indeed, this may be the first of French's novels which treats each major female character primarily as an individual person, rather than as a variation of universal Woman.
The author has pulled off a major tour de force of character development. Each of the four — and the reader's perception of them as well — changes substantially within the two months they spend together in the Upton mansion.
At the book's opening Elizabeth and Mary are very unlikable people. They belittle and quarrel with each other, picking at the other one's sore points. They question Alex's and Ronalda's right to be there at all. Elizabeth takes pride in her managerial ability and her position as an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. She is an intellectual snob, disdainful of anyone who has not equaled her achievements. Mary is a social snob. Her self-image is built on her ability to attract men, her circle of wealthy friends, and the houses and baubles she has accumulated. Now in her forties, after four husbands, she is almost broke, and panicking about it. (Her financial straits come from having been left with "only three million dollars" when a husband died — which may dilute sympathy for her from the typical reader.)
Alex, or Alexandra, feels safely ensconced in her marriage and parenting and volunteer activities. Her mother married again after leaving Stephen Upton, which provided Alex with a more usual middle-class childhood. Alex lives in Newark, Delaware, where her husband is an engineer at DuPont. She converted to Judaism when she married David, but otherwise her life has been quite normal. Alex is a nice person, always seeking to muffle conflict and to make others comfortable, but a bit dull and predictable.
Ronalda, or Ronnie, is a mystery to the other women. It is obvious to everyone that she is Stephen's daughter by Noradia Velez, his housekeeper for many years. But Stephen never acknowledged Ronalda. When they first meet, Mary and Elizabeth also deny their relationship to her. At one point in the book, Ronalda broods about which of her traits makes her most alien in Upton space. She concludes that her brown skin and Mexican heritage damn her the most. If she were Stephen's daughter by an unconventional British actress who disdained marriage — even his lesbian illegitimate daughter — she would be acceptable, if marginally so. After her half-sisters accept her, they still do not understand her...
(The entire section is 694 words.)