Letty Fox wants nothing more than to get married and start a family. She's not a shallow person, or one with a narrow view of the world, as you might expect from someone who has been planning their wedding since she was fourteen. (In the "present" of the novel Letty is twenty-four, with ten years of frustration under her belt.) That, in fact, is the seeming contradiction that makes her a compelling character: Letty is well-read, intelligent, independent, sexually free, and devoted to her "radical" causes, but she is also obsessed with marriage. She enters into any number of love affairs, many with men who are already married (and some who claim they might not be, in the future), but marriage and motherhood continue to elude her:
It seemed to happen to others--most others; never to me, and I thought it very peculiar. I couldn't figure it out; perhaps I was too young, anyway; but it savored to me of magic, and I felt very miserable that in this modern world something so primary, this first of all things to a woman, smacked so strongly of the tribal priest, the smoky cult, the tom-tom, the blood sacrifice, the hidden mystery. It didn't seem fair. We should have abolished all that with enlightenment.
Letty Fox is a hefty novel. The back of the book calls it a "vast Flemish canvas of a novel," which is a great descriptor for the way that Stead peoples the pages of Letty's life with innumerable characters. Hell, we're introduced to every single member of Letty's extended family, which must number in the dozens. Some of these characters are vivid and entertaining, like her uncle Philip, who is a serial groom and a serial cheat, or her uncle Percival, who lives in a house in northern New Jersey called "The Wreck" that he's constantly renovating and changing, so that doors seem to appear and disappear at random. Or a man with the excellent name of Gallant Stack, who seems to exist in the book for the express purpose of telling dirty jokes. And her father, the charismatic Solander Fox, who lives with his mistress Persia throughout Letty's childhood, refusing to return to Letty's beleaguered mother Mathilde (not so far from the beleaguered mother of The Man Who Loved Children.)
But I admit I had a lot of trouble keeping track of Letty's different lovers, a collection of millionaires, Dutch statesmen, British socialists, distant cousins (blech), and various neurotics and philanderers. Of course, Letty can't seem to always keep them apart either. I also had the same problem with Letty's two grandmothers--which one is the sickly one, terrified of death, and which is the one who seems to gather male admirers with age? But the scope of the novel is so wide--it's hard to imagine that anything was left on the cutting room floor of this six-hundred page novel--that the strongest observations, and the most comic episodes, get easily lost among the rest. Although I really liked a lot of the humor in Letty's dysfunctional childhood, in which she's shuttled back and forth between the US and Europe by her selfish parents and extended family members, it's a lot to get through en route to the marriage-madness that provides the book's central conflict.
The biggest disappointment of the novel, though, was one I expected: it never approaches the sublime weirdness and grotesqueness of The Man Who Loved Children. No doubt that's because a lot of what happened in that novel happened to be true, as it was inspired by Stead's own eccentric father. But I got the sense that a lot of what got left out of the depiction of David Stead in The Man Who Loved Children made it into Letty Fox. As Letty says, "I don't know what imagination is, if not an unpruned, tangled kind of memory."