Imagine if King Lear deserved the scorn of Goneril and Regan, and even that of kindly young Cordelia; if he had committed incest with them; and had fathered a fourth child with his humble servant (good sport at her making?); if the four sisters hated each other as much as they loathed their sire and found themselves locked in his castle together, there to watch the old man die, wondering who would inherit the throne.
The Lear of Marilyn French’s novel, Stephen Upton, while never a president himself, is close to the seat of power, having been a presidential adviser and the intimate of people like the Reagans, Bush and Kissinger. He has three daughters--Elizabeth, Mary and Alexandra--by three wives. He also has a daughter, Ronnie, by his Mexican housekeeper (named by the mother after the pediatrician, not the Gipper).
Upton has suffered a stroke on the day he buried his housekeeper-lover. His daughters, all four,smell blood like sharks, and come looking for some sign that their daddy, who sexually abused them as children, might have loved them? And perhaps might have set aside a few million for each of them?
Marilyn French has written a polemic, not a novel. Her points: Men have sexually and economically abused women since Day 1. High government circle (read Republican) or Fortune 500 males are the most guilty of all. They still believe their women, as well as people of different faiths and color, regardless of sex, are members of various human subspecies.
Upton is merely a symbol of everything Adolf Hitler loved and Marilyn French hates. In fact, he’s not even granted a single line in this book. Mostly he’s in a coma, and when he wakes up, he scowls, drools, glares and writes nasty notes.
The Upton offspring aren’t fleshed-out characters, either. Each daughter is but an archetype of the kind of creature that a woman can develop into in our sexually repressed world.
Elizabeth, a terribly thin 53-year-old redhead, works as a government economist. She is a frigid woman who only measures success and excellence by male standards. Her conservative politics reflects just how out of touch she is with her female soul. She judges other women harshly. If a woman relies on her charms, rather than brains, to make her way in the world, Elizabeth brands her a prostitute.
That’s how Elizabeth views Mary, her 48-year-old half-sister, a svelte, dark-haired beauty who has been married to some of the world’s richest men and whose idea of a good time is a villa in Capri and life made easy by well-trained, discreet servants.
Elizabeth and Mary call blond, baby sister Alex the spiritual type because she likes to spend time in churches. She also represents the classic bleeding-heart liberal. What will she do with her millions? Open a clinic with a group of nuns in war-torn El Salvador, of course (the story takes place in the early 1980s). Meanwhile she’s bored to tears in her marriage to a Jewish man who won’t let her celebrate Christmas. She doesn’t mind being away from her own two children for weeks on end, but fantasizes about feeding soup made out of wholesome, all natural ingredients to the starving kids in war-torn Central America.
Then there’s the lovechild Ronnie, the youngest, a brown-skinned lesbian who is working on her dissertation on mosses and lichen and believes in the possibilities of Sisterhood. She’s been so poor all her life that she only owns ratty jeans and feels out of place when half-sister Mary insists everyone dress for dinner, as if they were weekend guests at Brideshead.
Packaged in a smart, colorful dust jacket, “Our Father” is too preachy and badly written to count as literature and too static to be good mind candy. French lectures us endlessly about sexual inequality, breaking one of fiction’s cardinal rules: dramatize it, don’t tell it. There are no steamy sex scenes (repetitive, clinical descriptions of incest don’t count); no romantic interests; no Cartier, yachts or casinos--nobody spends those millions, they only talk about it. (The Uptons never throw out food; the cook makes soup everyday for lunch. Nobody in a Judith Krantz or Sidney Sheldon novel eats soup made out of leftovers.)
Well, somebody does die, but the situation feels utterly manufactured; French has the four daughters try their father in a kangaroo court for his crimes against them. They sentence him to death, but he dies during the proceedings, probably more out of boredom than terror.
The four sisters finally find mutual respect and love when they give the servants a day off and cook a Thanksgiving dinner together. (We’re treated to a lot of Upton household menus.) End of story.
Reread French’s “The Women’s Room,” one of the most remarkable, engaging, vital and yes, idea-stuffed, novels of the late ‘70s. French had a feminist message to send and send it she did. But she didn’t forget she was writing a novel with finely drawn, multidimensional characters; she brought an era to life through poetic moments and memorable, touching details.
What’s happened, Marilyn? Hillary and Bill are in the White House; the Stephen Uptons are out of jobs, at least for a little while.
Reading this stifling new novel is like being stuck in an elevator with the oxygen running out.
Take the stairs.