It may get the blame for cooling off a lot of relationships, but feminism itself can be a form of romance. Like many other sisterhood-is-powerful fictioneers from the days of “Fear of Flying,” Marilyn French sees your typical woman in love as a pot-bound houseplant. Break the shell of male domination, the story goes, and you’ll grow fabulous roots to go with your new, bold spirit.
“My Summer with George” is proof that if you cook that theory too long, it cracks. The protagonist is Hermione Beldame, a middle-aged romance writer who thought she’d seen it all before falling for a man who is Eeyore’s human double. George is mopey and potbellied, but he pesters Hermione, dates her and stands her up as if nothing else mattered. Naturally, she’s nuts about him. Her summer with George is actually a summer without him, because whenever she needs her guy, he’s out somewhere being typically male, i.e. No Damn Good.
French’s prose is so light-footed and pleasing that it’s tempting to overlook the imprint of fossilized indignation that shades this work. One old-guard feminist literary ethic has it that society is essentially deaf to the truth about how women make their way in this world. “I had a vague sense that women’s lives lay untouched, unseen, like tiny violets covered with snow. No one knew they were there, and no one cared, really,” Hermione muses, while the reader wonders whether French has been living under a washtub since her novel “The Women’s Room” came out. And with George so consistently boring and remote, the only mystery is how the author will pull it all together in the end.
Indeed, French knows a lot about the exquisite agonies of being jerked around, but the nuts and bolts of dependency seem to confuse her. To express female neediness, she has Hermione issue serial lunch invitations. “I met a man,” the heroine whispers to each eager confidant, who invariably slams his or her wine glass down on the table as if the second coming had just been announced. Such cinematic gullibility may be commonplace in French’s party circuit. There are probably a lot of fish in her world riding bicycles, too.