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Review: Carolyn Cooke's 'Daughters of the Revolution' poetic, feminist, playful

I hesitate to call Daughters of the Revolution a poetic novel — although it is exactly that — because some readers will think that means it's portentous and pretentious and understandable only with the use of a decoder ring. It's also a feminist novel, although I know some readers will suspect that means polemical and humorless and man-bashing.

No, and no. This slim debut novel by Carolyn Cooke is poetic in its lyrical, intense use of language and image and metaphor, and it wears its feminist politics on its elegant sleeve, but it's also mordantly funny and coolly streamlined, deeply humane and slyly wise.

The book begins in the early 1960s with a young couple in a New England town. When Heck Hellman and Lily Field married, Cooke writes, "It was better than life. They each played new parts, performing scenes of domestic comfort and sexual freedom. They met at three for what Lil called 'love in the afternoon.' Then she stood in her baby-doll pajamas over the stove while he mixed drinks."

But in the fractious '60s, that tidily traditional household Eden can't last. A few years later, Heck is in medical school and Lily is supporting the family, which now includes toddler daughter EV. They're painfully broke but still happy, although Heck's friendship with an old schoolmate is a source of friction.

Heck attended the Goode School, a bastion of genteel prep school sexism and snobbery run by a "venerable head" named Goddard Byrd, known to all as God.

God and the Goode School echo with American history and literature, as does the town, Cape Wilde, which still keeps its antique stocks on display in the public square. "Cape Wilde is a hard place. Judges used to send girls into exile here rather than bother burning them at the stake, and let the Indians take them, or wolves eat them. Sailors have drowned here for centuries; their ships crack up. These days, it's a motif for Sunday painters, who describe the docks and barns and churches whose spires impale the air. There is nowhere God would rather live."

Heck was a town boy whose mother scraped to pay his tuition; his friend, Archer Rebozos, is a more typical Goode boy, the son of wealthy and powerful parents. "It was easy to be drawn to money, as if it were a quality of character," Cooke writes. "Heck felt drawn to Rebozos's generous, untroubled spirit. . . ."

This will not end well. Soon Lily and EV are on their own, their fates, it seems, more and more linked to God's. And, yes, Cooke has all kinds of fun with her characters' names — a secretary named Mrs. Graves tends to God in his last years, EV will have a boyfriend named Pilgrim, and God's greatest nemesis is a 15-year-old girl named Carole Faust.

God has always asserted that Goode would go co-ed only "over my dead body," but Carole arrives on campus in 1969, complete with a scholarship, thanks to an error that put her in the school's small "Negro" pool of applicants when a secretary gave her name the masculine spelling "Carroll."

Her presence will change God's life, as well as Lily's and EV's, in all sorts of surprising ways. As EV says, "God and Carole were opposites, drawn to each other for the purpose of some struggle that took place almost before my eyes and formed my consciousness. (I wanted to be him, and wanted to be her.)"

The structure of Daughters of the Revolution is nonlinear, moving back and forth over several decades. (Each chapter is labeled with a year, from 1963 to 2005, so the reader knows where the story has landed.) Sometimes EV or Mei-Mei (EV's name for her mother) narrates in the first person; most of the time third-person narration shifts among various characters. The chapters may seem episodic, but Cooke skillfully weaves her themes and images into the whole, final shape.

Much of the pleasure of Daughters of the Revolution is to be found in Cooke's virtuoso writing, which can be literary and playful and emotionally complex all at once. Here's God getting ready for an appointment with a woman: "He put on khaki pants, a striped shirt and a bow tie, feeling like Marlow among the cannibals, not wanting to appear unappetizing." Or EV describing an aunt who was subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy because her family thought her too "wild": After that, "nothing new ever happened to Aunt Ruth." But when she dies, EV and Mei-Mei "remove an outrageous mass of pornographic magazines from under her bed. She was the princess and the pea of pornography, her mattress all in lumps."

The book's title suggests the impact of an era of great cultural upheaval on its characters, and that's true to some degree. God, for example, suffers a concussion when he exits the Parker House Hotel in Boston after a tryst (he's an enthusiastic adulterer who is quite surprised when his wife finally leaves him) and walks into a feminist protest that involves a bomb in a trash can.

But what Cooke shows us, beautifully and believably, is how those big cultural changes filter down into each person's life — for EV, finding herself involves red high heels and pink hair, a Smith College degree in gender studies followed by a low-wage retail job. It's all part of Cooke's story of how her characters struggle, once the old gender roles crack and crumble, to create new ways to cope with grief, to recognize love, to make themselves anew.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Daughters of the Revolution

By Carolyn Cooke

Knopf, 173 pages, $24.95

Review: Carolyn Cooke's 'Daughters of the Revolution' poetic, feminist, playful 07/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 9, 2011 5:30am]

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