The Love Children
by Marilyn French
Published by The Feminist Press at CUNY
352 pages, 2009
In the Shadow of The Woman’s Room
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Marilyn French spent the bulk of her writing career beneath the shadow of her magnificent first novel, the semi-autobiographical The Women’s Room. Published in 1977, the book is no less searing today than when it first appeared. And while it afforded French deserved fame, the five works of fiction that followed were uneven, ranging from excellent -- The Bleeding Heart, Her Mother’s Daughter -- to the downright bad: Our Father, My Summer with George. The Love Children, French’s final novel, falls on the weaker end of this mighty woman’s output.
French died on May 4th of this year -- another loss in what’s shaping up to be a devastating year of cultural losses -- and I wonder how much of the novel was truly finished at the time of her death. My advance review copy was replete with timeline glitches and awkward grammatical constructions, but it’s difficult to discern how much of this will appear in the finished publication. The most egregious errors involve Alice Waters -- characters prepare a Waters veal recipe in the early 1970s, years before the first Chez Panisse cookbooks appeared, and speak at length of her “luscious” restaurant before word about the weird café in Berkeley -- which French moves to San Francisco -- was widespread.
The Love Children follows Jessamin Leighton from age 14 through adulthood, ending when she is 51. Born in 1953, Jess is what French calls one of the “love children,” a new generation freed from the oppressive chauvinism her mother endured. Unfortunately, Jess’s life isn’t free of damaging male influence. Her father, a talented artist, left his Harvard teaching job to paint full time. A heavy drinker and unrepentant sexist, he expects Jess’s mother, Andrea, to shop, clean, and cook, even as she pursues her Ph.D. in literature. Jess’s father excoriates Andrea continually: family life is fractious, then fractured when Jess’s father moves to his remote, crude Vermont cabin. He demands his wife and daughter join him there. Andrea flies to Mexico instead, where she gets a divorce.
Andrea is far more interesting than Jess herself. Having freed herself of an alcoholic, verbally abusive husband, she manages to wrangle a place for herself in academia, write a book on Emily Dickinson, and have relationships on her own terms. Andrea has a wide circle of female friends, some caught in conventional, unhappy marriages, others working hard, as she has, to make lives and careers for themselves. These women -- Andrea, her friends Eve and Alyssa -- are reminiscent of the characters who so vividly populated The Women’s Room.
The same cannot be said for Jess. Only 14 at the novel’s outset, her childish, matter-of-fact delivery is understandable. Jess and her friends, a band of mostly privileged children who treat the streets of Cambridge like a large, liberal playground, are duly indignant high schoolers, defiantly growing their hair, wearing jeans, and smoking lots and lots of pot. Two of their group -- Steve, who is black, and Dolores, a Latina, come from poor, broken homes. They’re almost tokens: the black man who never gets a chance (Steve gets a scholarship to Harvard, but never attends) and the Latina whose abusive father knows no bounds. The teens run around quoting Nietzsche and planning the perfect society. Jess, who is reading and writing poetry, has relatively modest goals: she wants to exist peacefully. She wants to be happy. But her narrative voice fails to mature, even as early idealism gives way to horror at Viet Nam and the deaths of RFK and Martin Luther King.
Given the acidic unhappiness of French’s earlier works, The Love Children’s blithe tone is both troubling and startling. When 38-year-old Andrea takes up with 22-year-old Philo, a Ph.D. candidate and fellow college instructor, Jess, too, is soon enamored of the handsome, intelligent young man -- so much so that in a conversation that ranks as one of the most unrealistic in realistic fiction, she asks Andrea to “give” Philo to her. Andrea points out that Philo isn’t property, but says she’ll think about it, announcing a few weeks later she considers it a bad idea, one that might cause discomfort between mother and daughter. All of this is delivered in the calm tones others employ to discuss dinner plans.
Jess heads off to the small, liberal Andrews College, where she falls in with a group of poets and begins dating both men and women. But when she takes up with the moody Chris, things go awry. Jealous, he spreads word she is the college “pump,” one of the many dated terms in the novel. Yet Jess makes no attempt to defend her reputation, instead digging into her studies. She enrolls in a nearby college to take “The Bible as Literature,” a course she adores. She throws herself into a paper on Sarah, only to receive an F. She consults the (male) professor in office hours, only to be called an aggressive bitch. Again, she does nothing to defend herself. She packs her bags and heads back home to Andrea, her college days over.
I have no doubt that some men behaved this way toward female students -- and still do -- but we’re meant to understand that Jess is no pushover, so her passive hurt is surprising. So is her bouncy good nature, which easily reasserts itself. With best friend Sandy at her side, Jess hops into her sportscar and drives up to Becket, where their friend Bishop has joined a commune called Pax. She spends the next three years there, immersing herself in a difficult life of farmwork and household labor. Despite its group meetings, Pax is a male-dominated enterprise; when leaders Brad and Bert announce the women should be “communal property,” Jess packs her bags.
Food plays a tremendous role in the novel. All of French’s women like to cook -- remember the rack of spices in Valerie’s kitchen? The cream of watercress soup she serves a bewildered Mira? -- but The Love Children incorporates a tremendous amount of food writing, as if French really wanted to write a food book. Thus Andrea is a talented cook who seeks out local, organic ingredients long before Whole Foods or the Locavore Movement. She passes her love of cooking to Jess, who finds herself planting herb gardens at Pax, taking over kitchen duties, then, after leaving, heading to her father’s Vermont cabin. Like many of French’s male characters, Jess’s viscous father has subsided into a silent, passive man. He still drinks too much, but his rages have diminished without explanation. Now 23, Jess finds work at a foundering local restaurant, cooking French country food and bringing in the diners. That she is young, pregnant, and lacking any formal culinary training doesn’t appear to be an impediment.
Jess became pregnant just before leaving the commune. She decides to keep the baby, a daughter, and is soon running the restaurant, schlepping a baby around, and spending days off checking out local farms for produce a lá Alice at Chino Ranch. It’s now 1976: Mollie Katzen and the Moosewood folks had just started doing their thing, but the organic revolution was still pretty far off. Nevertheless, Jess drives around Vermont until the fateful day she meets mushroom cultivator Jacques Jacquet ... and, well, I won’t spoil the plot, but I kept wondering what in the world got into Marilyn French. Perhaps at the end, she wanted a happy ending? Given the many positive changes in women’s lives, perhaps she thought happy endings possible? She is still quick to note the world’s many injustices, writing “But the world is as terrible a place as ever.” on the final page. But Jess Leighton, a love child, is removed from the terrible things: hers is not a life of suffering, but happiness.
Had another author written The Love Children, I would have felt differently. I might have said, well, this is a pleasant if mildly flawed look backward. Coming from a woman who spent her life railing against injustice, it’s just plain bewildering. But I am loathe to close this review negatively. Marilyn French was a brilliant woman who left an impressive body of work, and her death diminishes us all. | August 2009
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.