Four women parcel out ready-made feminist wisdom to one another, often over tea, in a bucolic New England setting.
Alicia, Maddy, Emily and Jenny form an insular society in an idyllic Massachussetts town. They’re from different generations, pursue different careers and come from different backgrounds, but they find emotional satisfaction in each other’s company. In the beginning, Maddy and Emily, a generation older than the other two, represent the wisdom and reassuring solidity that come from lives led to the fullest. Alicia and Jenny, younger by at least a generation, see in the two older women examples of how to succeed the hard way, admiring them for making independent choices and living on their own terms. For their part, Maddy and Emily see in Alicia and Jenny limitless possibilities for growth and success. The novel moves back and forth between the perspectives of the characters, gradually revealing that each woman, no matter how successful she seems to her friends, has made choices that diminished her. However, the story is nothing if not life-affirming, so no matter what happened to the women in their pasts—from losing contact with a beloved niece to putting artistic greatness on the back burner for the sake of a husband—each will help the other achieve a sense of closure. Paintings are painted, symphonies are performed, marriages are straightened out and families are mended, all with the loving support of a magical friendship circle. There are some bright moments, foremost the carefully drawn characters of Emily and Maddy, but there are many others in which the narrative is so eager to evaluate the benefits and the shortcomings of various strands of feminism that the story falls by the wayside. Jenny and Alicia seem in particular to be cardboard cutouts, and the author’s pedagogic aims trump her interest in fully developed characters and plots.
French’s sixth novel (My Summer with George, 1996, etc.) is filled with pointed insights about womanhood, but not many fully realized women.