(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although Mira is the central figure — the one whose story links the threads together — the real protagonist is "women." The book's first half is devoted to the group of suburban friends and neighbors who share coffee (or wine) and support one another with fragments of conversation constantly interrupted by the demands of toddlers or the press of sudden household disaster. Bliss, Adele, Natalie, Samantha, Martha, and Lily demonstrate various problems such as alcoholism, nervous breakdown and desertion, but they are not characterized simply in terms of one problem apiece. Each is a fully rounded individual; indeed, it appears that any of the problems could have come to any one of them. The second half of the book introduces a new group — graduate students at Harvard in the late 1960s. Again, the women are memorable characters with a variety of social backgrounds, each of whom is capable of growth and change during the course of the story.

The male characters are much less fully realized: some reviewers called them stick figures. French's refusal to provide in-depth characterizations for the novel's males is, in fact, thematically significant. At mid-book the narrator, trying to describe the man Mira married, admits she knows almost nothing about him and is unable to imagine his thoughts. The gap between women and men is so great, and socialization has made their responses and outlooks so different, that no woman can grasp what actually goes on inside...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

French has populated her novel with many female characters whose experiences are similar; all the women’s stories concern male domination and corresponding female powerlessness. Mira, the protagonist and the narrator, tries to fit in with what is expected of her, but her intelligence and sensitivity rebel at the role of wife and mother that she has accepted. Her frustration results from the fact that her work is rendered valueless by her husband and, in a larger sense, by society, and therefore she herself has no worth. Her story is repeated throughout the novel in the lives of her friends both in the New Jersey suburbs and in Cambridge.

There is Adele, a Catholic with five children and pregnant with the sixth, who at thirty is haggard. She has put her husband through law school and now envies his elegance and his evenings with his clients and law partners. When he is at home, he is as demanding as one of her children, waiting for her to serve his martini and expecting his discarded tie to be picked up.

There is Samantha, whose husband loses his job and refuses to accept employment other than in sales, so Samantha becomes a typist. Her meager check barely covers the essentials for the family of four and cannot cover her husband’s debts. Eventually they divorce, but she is still responsible for his bills. She and her children move to a cheap apartment and spend a few months on welfare, but through her hard work, they survive.


(The entire section is 515 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Mira, a graduate student in the English department at Harvard who is the divorced mother of two sons. She is older than most of the other graduate students, having gone back to school at the age of thirty-eight, yet the younger women seem much more comfortable with themselves. It is not until she becomes part of a small circle of friends at Harvard that she begins to see her personal life in terms of feminist politics: Her consciousness is raised. From that perspective, she looks back at her earlier self with scorn. Although intelligent and a voracious reader, Mira accepted, almost without question, the limits put on her behavior and aspirations, first by her parents and later by her husband. Married to a wealthy man, living in a beautiful house, and dressed in lovely clothes, she considered herself successful until her husband asked her for a divorce. At Harvard, she makes friends who help her learn to trust herself and to challenge the limits others place on her.


Val, a graduate student in social science at Harvard and the divorced mother of a daughter. A year or so older than Mira, Val is tall, big-boned, flamboyant, and fleshy. She is known for her collection of capes from around the world. She talks loudly and authoritatively. At times, it seems as if Val has transformed every one of her experiences into theory. Val is more politically involved than the others. Eventually, her politics force her to take an uncompromising stand on women’s rights, and she is killed as a result.


Isolde, a graduate student in...

(The entire section is 658 words.)