Cabin Fever?
Time, November 1, 1967


by Francine du Plessix Gray
316 pages. Simon & Schuster. $8.95.

FRANCINE DU PLESSIX GRAY , 46, is a tall, blonde woman with large eyes and elegant cheekbones. The daughter of a French aristocrat and a White Russian emigré, she lived in Paris as a child, moved to the U.S. in 1941, went to a fashionable New York girls' school (Spence) and Barnard. After college she had a fling in Paris, then returned home and settled down to life in the country with her painter husband and two sons, now 15 and 16. A sporadically lapsed Catholic, Mrs. Gray demonstrated against the war in Viet Nam, was busted, got involved with the Berrigan brothers and wrote Divine Disobedience, a splendid book about priestly radicals.

Masquerade. Subtract Divine Disobedience, substitute an architect for that painter husband and Radcliffe for Barnard, and the above details, cheekbones included, pretty well describe Stephanie, the heroine of Mrs. Gray's first novel. This may be why Lovers and Tyrants flourishes only when it is masquerading as a memoir. The author has no trouble persuading the reader that there was once a small girl in Paris named Stephanie. She loved her father and was shattered by his death early in the war. She longed to be a boy and a naval hero, but was stifled by the clinging care of a lachrymose governess. "I never ran or sang or mothered dolls ... My temperature was taken twice a day."

Francine Gray knows the French. Stephanie's remembrance of things past flashes with literary style and wit. Remarkable siblings and sexual suitors are summoned up, often in hilarious detail, though they are mostly kept frozen at the edge of caricature by Stephanie's satiric perceptions. The author is at home in emigré salons and ancient country holdings—where the landscaping is by Le Nôtre and the new power mower is by John Deere. When the ancestral crypt, where Stephanie's father lies, gets too crowded, the family simply shifts the bones of those who had made "bad marriages." The flavor of refugee New York in the '40s, classy but cashless, also comes to the reader engagingly filtered through the pride and prejudice of a precocious, lonely girl trying to make it in a rich and snobby school.

It is when Stephanie marries Paul and settles into an American country wifehood that the teasing promise of her intricate and highly individual childhood declines toward case history, and static, predictable domestic woe. Stephanie's cries rise to heaven like those of De Sade's Justine, a girl, one recollects, with far more justification for complaint. Paul, Stephanie grants, is a splendid lover, a fine husband, a kind man, a devoted father—as handsome, she reports, as Jimmy Stewart. But he doesn't want to live in the city. And he doesn't talk to Stephanie enough. "Our silence festers," she confides to her journal. "Our silence swells. Our silence lies between us like a heap of garbage." Within a few years, "I knew I would rather die brutally, prematurely, than lead the life my husband would have preferred for me." Eventually, in the throes of what an earlier age might have charitably called cabin fever, she runs through the forest clutching leaves, moaning with thirst, and finally plunges into a lily-filled river seeking death and freedom.

Means of Liberation. At this point Mrs. Gray abruptly switches from the first-person "I" narrative form that has preserved whatever degree of credibility the story maintains. Stephanie in the third person, Stephanie as "she," makes fairly ludicrous fiction. She turns up, not drowned but hinting darkly at the presence of terminal cancer, tooting around the Southwest with a genial young homosexual whom she patronizes, mothers and seems to be weaning away from a fear of feminine flesh. Meanwhile she scribbles notes to her husband and communes with herself about nurturing and whether women can ever be happy free of it, about sex and whether androgyny would be better, about writing a novel as a means of liberation. Her conclusion: "The magic word is the jailor's name. Identify the enemy and you may begin to love him."

This is an age that has learned any grievance must be accepted as both genuine and significant if the public weeping and wailing are long and loud enough. It would therefore be wise to take seriously Mrs. Gray's passionate meditation on the tyranny of love. Not as a novel, though.

The real enemy in Lovers and Tyrants is a lack of the rare alchemy needed to transform ideas and raw experience into a story that will believably carry its own truth. ("If one day they find their way into a book," Graham Greene wrote about the details of a novelist's life, "it should be without our connivance.") Successful biography, and autobiography, are less demanding than fiction. They mainly require qualities that Francine Gray clearly possesses: eloquence, extraordinary intellect and a fascinating life to exploit.