" The Love Children is valuable in its exploration and depiction of the many ways in which gender can still be a limitation, even within a supposedly more enlightened society." Bust Magazine
It is the late 1960s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Grateful Dead is playing on the radio and teenagers are wearing long hair and blue jeans. Jess Leighton, the daughter of a temperamental painter and a proto-feminist Harvard professor, is struggling to make sense of her world amid racial tensions, Vietnam War protests, and anti-government rage.
With more options than her mother's generation, but no role model for creating the life she desires, Jess experiments with sex and psychedelic drugs as she searches for happiness on her own terms. In the midst of joining and fleeing a commune, growing organic vegetables, and operating a sustainable restaurant, Jess grapples with the legacy of her mother's generation
About the Author
Pioneering feminist thinker Marilyn French has written numerous works of literary criticism, history, memoir, and fiction. Her bestselling classic, The Women's Room, embodied the issues that ignited the women's movement for millions of readers. Recently, she has published the novel In the Name of Friendship and a four volume series of women's history entitled From Eve to Dawn.
Read an Excerpt
When I was fourteen, and still in junior high, we read a Hemingway story in English class that opened, "In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more." It was a sad story, and that line stayed in my head; it felt like my own truth. War had always been present in my life, although I never went to it myself. Before I was born, my father joined the air force, during World War II, when he was seventeen years old. I giggled when he told me about it — I was a little girl then — because he had to get a note from his mommy and daddy the way I did when I was absent from school. He didn't like my giggling. It was serious, he said. He went to officer candidate school and learned to fly bombers, but because by then the war was almost over, he never left the United States and didn't see combat. This was his tragedy. He wanted to be a hero.
My father was proud of being a Leighton and proud that Leightons had served in every war this country had ever fought. He thought the country began in the 1620s, when Leightons first arrived here. They landed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1623, not on the Mayflower, but on another ship. I thought Cambridge must have already been a place, because Indians lived there, but Daddy said it wasn't. He said it was a wilderness. I adored Daddy and loved the times he let me sit by him. When he told me about his tragedy, I said that it was important that he had been in the war, not where. I knew he was also in the Korean War, but about that he was bitter: just his luck, he said, that he was too young for World War II and too old for the Korean War, where he was assigned to jockey supply planes to Seoul, and bring the wounded back to California, a job he said was equivalent to driving a bus. He wanted to drop bombs.
When I was fourteen, Daddy and Hemingway merged into one person in my imagination, both of them dashing flyboys in visored caps and handsome uniforms, standing in bars sipping martinis and exchanging dry ironic repartee while jauntily braving death. War was tragic, but underneath, it was glamorous.
As the years went on he talked less about the war — maybe because my mother had different ideas about warfare in general. They didn't disagree openly until I was in my teens, when war meant Vietnam, which also began before I was born. American soldiers were "advising" the French in Vietnam in 1950, when the United States began sending soldiers there. I was born in 1953, and as I grew up, Vietnam was always in the news. I'd hear about it after my TV programs, Captain Kangaroo or The Mickey Mouse Club, ended. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I was ten years old and we had fifteen thousand troops in Vietnam. The next year, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, intensifying the war, and by the time I was twelve and had put my dollhouse on a high shelf in my closet to make room for my new portable typewriter, the United States had more than one hundred and eighty thousand troops in Vietnam and people were arguing, even shouting, about it at dinner parties. My mother and father's arguments became vicious. I tried to blot out their rage, but the war was never not in my consciousness.
By 1967, it had moved right to the center of my brain. Kids in school had begun to quarrel about it. Most of us were probably echoing our parents. Some of the kids were intensely pro-war. I envied them their certainty, but I disliked them — they seemed so smug denouncing "gooks" and "Commies." They were the same kids who were delighted when Robert Kennedy was assassinated; they were laughing — "Two down, one to go."
When I dared to argue, it was as a pacifist; I was against killing anyone. I was pro-McCarthy, shocked by the Democratic convention and devastated by the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.: I felt that we were murdering all our decent leaders, leaving only wild-eyed crazies and dullards to run the country. But I was young and didn't have much knowledge, just lots of emotion.
In 1968, the year I started senior high school, we had more than a half million troops in Vietnam, killing with abandon and dying like flies — we learned in biology that flies have a lifespan of twenty-four hours; the lifespan of a new ground soldier in Vietnam seemed to be about the same. War had come to mean something to me. I read how army sergeants bullied and harassed young boys and taught them to hate the enemy. And when I read history, it seemed as if wars didn't really accomplish anything. They might make one man a big deal for a few years — like Alexander the Great or Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin — but he always died in the end, and his empire always fell apart, and meanwhile millions of people had died for him. Half the time warring countries ended up friends, like the Catholics and the Protestants in Europe, after hundreds of years of disemboweling each other's babies and burning each other to death. War meant a lot of people getting killed or dying of disease or starvation and houses and schools and churches or whole cities getting burned down. I thought that the man or group who wanted power enough to go to war should do the fighting in a bullring, and leave the rest of us out of it.
Mostly I didn't think about war, though. I lived in a dream of a happy life. I painted a set of pictures of it when I was six: in the first, a little blonde, blue-eyed girl dances toward a woman with brown hair and wearing an apron whose back is to the viewer. Then the girl hands the woman a garland, which she tries to hang on the barren branch of a tree under the eye of a savage sun. My mother framed my pictures and hung them in the kitchen.
I gleaned my sense of happiness from books, especially from the pictures in them, and from glimpses of my own family at charmed moments, like when my father spoke with love in his voice or my mother made an affectionate gesture toward him. Such things filled me with as much happiness as drinking a glass of chocolate milk. But by the time I was nine or ten, my father was in a rage pretty much all the time — at least when he was home. Willa Cather quoted a French saying about husbands and fathers who were "Joy of the street, sorrow of the home." That was my father: always amiable in public but a horror at home. He did have an occasional moment of lightheartedness; he might be full of jokes at Christmas or after a trip to New York. Because these occasions were rare, they were always a surprise, and a relief. Mom would get silly with pleasure. He won gold stars just for being pleasant.
Most of the time, though, his voice hurled through the house like clanging metal. He harried Mom over some glance she'd dropped, some word mislaid, creating a complex weave of betrayal and infidelity. Or he would yell at me for some terrible sin I couldn't remember committing — putting my hand on the wall or using the wrong fork. Then Mom, trying to deflect him from me, or just trying to shut him up, would yell back, and the two of them would be off, the house reverberating with curses and yells, their fury bouncing off the walls.
When that happened, I was grateful for my books. I retreated to them, lying on my bed submerged in the tales of Mary Nor-ton's Borrowers series, about tiny people concealed under the floorboards, or thrilled by Edith Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle, eased by the healing beauties of Rumer Godden. I was especially enthralled by the harmonious family life and salubrious hard work of Laura Ingalls Wilder's families. I read all nine of her Little House books, reread them, lived them.
Besides books, I had friends. I always had friends. I'd stick to one girl, cling to her, my life raft in the heaving ocean of childhood, with its huge pull of Mommy and Daddy. Mommy and Daddy had friends and seemed to always know what to do and be able to do it: I was just an offshoot. But when I was with my friend, I was almost myself. I wasn't allowed to cross the street or leave the block or go anywhere exciting, such as a candy store or ice cream parlor, so having a friend was a kind of declaration of independence. I took friendship seriously and always thought my present friend would be my friend forever.
I was ecstatic with each step I took toward some vague horizon I could not even see — crossing the street alone, walking to the ice cream store on Broadway, walking to school alone, and eventually, going to the movie house on Brattle Street with my friend. I savored each revolutionary event as a major rite of passage into the state I longed for: adulthood. I resented being a child; it was outrageous that I, who had a perfectly good mind and will, should have to obey other people just because I was small! It was an indignity to have to get permission, or hold someone's hand, just to do what I wanted to do.
Sandy Lipkin was the first friend I could be completely — almost completely — independent with. By the time we met in tenth grade, we were fifteen, we had some money, and could go to the movies. We both had driver's permits. The only thing remaining was to earn money on our own, and that would happen soon. We were very proud of ourselves. We wore our hair long, forgetting to comb it, and never wore anything but blue jeans. We felt as new sprung as Botticelli's Aphrodite from sea-foam, but no modest virgins we, using our hands to conceal our pubes; no, we were part of the new world, the miracle of a chosen generation, which made us miracles too. We were proud of our pubes. Well, we wanted to be. Well, we knew we would be when we were grown up.
Sandy was tall, with light brown eyes, dark blonde hair, and long arms and legs. I have light blonde hair and blue eyes and people always said I was beautiful, but to my sorrow I was and still am short and have a tendency to bustiness that I deplore. I wore oversize T-shirts and sweaters to avoid comments on the street.
Sandy and I were smart enough that we didn't have to spend much time on our homework. So was Bishop, our friend. His father was the police commissioner in Cambridge. He was taller than Sandy and gangly, with eyes as pale as water. His skin was pearly, giving off light. He was a butterfly, flitting from one thing to another. He would stop and sip, leaving behind a tinge of sweetness. Both Sandy and I were in love with him. None of us ever made out with each other, although we thought about it.
Most of my friends and I started out in the Cambridge public schools, but for high school we were sent to Barnes, a private school. Barnes was housed in an ivy-covered stone mansion in the wealthy part of Cambridge north of Brattle Street, within walking distance of Harvard Yard and the Square. With our small classes and smart teachers, we were ahead of the public school kids even though we cut school fairly often, as did the public school kids.
In the fall of 1968, when I started at Barnes, Harvard students took over the Yard. It had been an eventful year, beginning with the Tet Offensive, and followed by a Viet Cong attack on Saigon and Hue. Events on campus were set against life-and-death matters in the larger world, and it was exciting to walk through the Yard, with hordes of students milling around the administration building, people yelling through loudspeakers, students sitting in, everybody protesting the Vietnam War. The same thing was happening in other schools but I wasn't all that up on the news; most of us weren't, except Bishop, who was kind of crazy on the subject. His jaw would set and his mouth get almost mean when he talked about the war. I admired his seriousness and tried to equal his passion. But I knew I was a "flibbertigibbet," as my father constantly reminded me.
When, in October 1968, our government began to negotiate with the Vietnamese in Paris, we were all sure that it was student protest — our movement! — that had forced it to act and that the war would be over in a few months. We believed that we, our generation, had provoked this. It was heady, a triumphant affirmation of our power. We would not have believed then that the war would drag on for another seven years. It's hard for people who weren't there to imagine that scene now. None of the many wars since — in Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Iraq — have aroused anything like that degree of sustained protest.
The air in Cambridge in those days was fragrant with the scent of weed as my pals and I happily walked the streets for hours. A bunch of us would gather in my kitchen after our travels, sitting around the table, on the armchairs, and the floor, talking and drinking Coke. My friends always left to go home for dinner about the time my mother came home to start cooking.
Few parents were willing to put up with the whole crowd. We could go to Phoebe Marx's apartment in a fancy building. It was always empty, because both her parents worked, but it was dark because it was on the first floor, and there was never anything to drink except water; her mother was a doctor and refused to buy sweet drinks. We could go to Sandy's, but she lived way out in Belmont — too far to walk. She took a bus to school, or her mother or father drove her. Her house was a wide brick colonial with big windows. Light streamed into all the rooms, and I loved that. They had wall-to-wall carpeting in every room, not old-fashioned Persian and Indian rugs like ours. But the atmosphere was so refined, so quiet and mannerly and beige, like the furniture, that we didn't really feel comfortable there. We didn't go to Bishop's that often either. His parents had built a rec room in the basement for the kids, and his younger brothers were always around, playing pool or just running and yelling, so boisterous and present that we didn't love being there. I was an only child, my father was rarely in the house, and if my mother was home she was in her study, so my house became our usual destination.
I see now that most of us were well-off, but I didn't realize that at the time. We weren't considered wealthy in our own society, so it escaped us that we were among the privileged of the world. Our parents probably did think about the bills, yet they could afford to hire people to clean their houses and wash and iron their clothes, take care of their lawns and gardens, cater their parties. They bought good clothes — Sandy and I had our worst quarrels with our mothers over clothes. They would buy sweet little dresses for us and beg us to wear them to cousin Lily's wedding or Great-Grandma's funeral, but we stormed out of rooms and slammed doors, loudly lamenting that destiny had provided us with such square parents. We refused on point of death to compromise our principles.
My family lived a few blocks from Harvard Yard. I had no idea that our smallish house, whose lack of modernity embarrassed me, was something other people might envy. Parts had been built in the eighteenth century: there were exposed beams in the ceilings of the living and dining rooms, and the kitchen had open wooden shelves that I hated and my mother loved. The fireplace was old, and the downstairs had wide-board wooden floors. Downstairs were the living room, dining room, and kitchen; an ancestor had tacked a porch on the side and there was a big old pantry behind the kitchen, part of which my mother had converted into a bathroom. Upstairs there were two bedrooms and my mother's study. Our house wasn't fancy, like the nineteenth-century castle on Garden Street where Bishop lived, with its high ceilings and sculpted moldings and its sliding walnut pocket doors between the downstairs rooms. It had a gallery all around the front and side, nine bedrooms, and two parlors.
What was nice about our house was the backyard, which sprawled into a stand of trees. It had a garage that my father had put a second story on and made into his studio. It had huge windows to the south and east, and a beautiful wooden floor. Back when life was happier around there, he worked in his studio and slept with Mom in the double bed in the big bedroom. I wasn't sure when or why that changed; it happened in whispers behind my back. I was thirteen when Dad announced one night at dinner that he couldn't paint here; Cambridge drove him crazy, Harvard drove him crazy, the Harvard art department drove him crazy, and he was going to move to Vermont, to the cabin up there that we used for summer vacations. It was a shack, really; it didn't have indoor plumbing, and it was isolated out in the woods.
"I just got my PhD, Pat!" My mother cried. "What am I supposed to do with it up there? There's nothing there! I just signed a contract with Harvard!"
"That's nothing!" he countered. "Just tear it up!"
Mom sat back. "I don't want to."
"We'll rough it," he urged. "It'll be fun!"
"Fun for who?" my mother challenged.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Love Children"
Copyright © 2009 Marilyn French.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Marilyn French is so wonderful in constructing her characters, that for many chapters in The Love Children, I thought she was writing a memoir. The greatest strength of this book is the deep inner examination of her main character's personality. That drives the book more than any turmoil outside the character. The main action of the story involves the inner development and discoveries made by Jess Leighton as she graduates from high school, finds herself during her college years, and completes the examination and determination of who she is and what her life will consist of. This never feels like a young adult novel; despite the young age of Jess when introduced to her, the deep introspection can be understood across ages. Along with the Jess's introspection comes wonderful observations about her family life, with a feminist mother and a sexist, depressed, artistic father. Her friends come from a variety of economic and social backgrounds, so the variety of observations and the interplay between all these groups result in another layer of introspection. The Love Children is a wonderful book that offers a refreshing change of focus. Instead of the typical action-driven novel, this book offers a deep examination of a person's personality and all the questions one asks oneself when uncovering who you want to be.
Many of the B&N members seem to dislike this book. I for one think it's brilliant. I've not yet finished, but i'm hooked.
I know this was written right before her death but I found this a disappointment. I loved The Woman's Room and The Bleeding Heart (no longer in print) but this was an indulgent book - a bore, don't waste your money...so sorry.