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.)