French's 'George': feminist humiliation

August 25, 1996|By Dorothea Straus | Dorothea Straus,Special to the Sun

"My Summer With George," by Marilyn French, Knopf, 243 pages, $23.

Revolutions, like their founders, are doomed to age, to lose their clear aims and vigor. The feminist movement is no longer young and "My Summer with George" follows the general law. "The Women's Room" by the same author, was published in the 1970s and is still to be found on bookstore shelves. This latest work may profit from its forerunner, as well as from the ongoing indebtedness of women to the pioneers from whom the rebellion took spark.

"My Summer With George" is a first-person narrative whose protagonist, Hermoine Beldame (a chosen pen name) was born Elsa Schultz. Now in her 60s, she is the author of 87 lucrative romance novels, and though single at the opening of the book, she has had three husbands and four children.

Her first sordid, loveless marriage when she was a teen-ager followed one casual coupling and an unwanted pregnancy. The other marriages and their ensuing offspring are merely mentioned, but more attention presented in flashbacks , is given to Elsa Schultz's forlorn, lower-middle class childhood.

Hermoine Beldame's Cinderella rise has admitted her into the society of the rich and sophisticated. She is no stranger to parties on Long Island whose guest lists include all varieties of "artists" and homosexual couples of both genders. She is a familiar at New York's fashionable restaurants and knows the "in" menus at each, attends the "right" films and theater, has lived in luxury Belvedere apartments on Fifth Avenue and Central Park West with the choicest views of the park and traveled extensively abroad for recreation as well as for research.

These privileges are treated in luscious detail, with so little irony that I begin to wonder if this book would provide escape reading for anachronistic housewife prisoners, the very females that Marilyn French had thought to awake.

But the core of "My Summer with George" is in the humiliation of the self-sufficient heroine, who is reduced to a spineless sexual supplicant at first sight of George - middle-aged, dull, wooden, evasive. And Hermoine's summer romance, her sex life, is carried on solely inside her own hungry erotic imagination.

Debased, like the goddess Brunhilde who fell in love with a mortal, Beldame speaks of her failure as a feminist leader in the last lines of her novel.

"But now I face the fact, the sorry fact or is it triumph? There it is, there it remains: My spirit is still a girl's trapped inside a deteriorating container. The unending drive, the geyser spurt of desire that is life goes on and on; will not be stilled in body or spirit. Till death do us part."

Any honest cries of the heart are marred by cliches and carelessness. After page 159 I stopped counting "glittering" eyes.

"My Summer with George," is the "Women's Room" - 1996.

Dorothea Straus is the author of six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species," and " Under the Canopy." She was publisher of Harpers Bazaar and the Partisan Review.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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