Monday, July 18, 2011

"Daughters of the Revolution," by Carolyn Cooke

On 7/14/11 I wrote of how much I liked Carolyn Cooke’s collection of short stories, “The Bostons.” Now I have read her new book, a novel, “Daughters of the Revolution” (Knopf, 2011), which I also liked very much, although it took me a little while to warm up to it. At first it almost seemed that -- despite the clear label of “novel” -- this book would be a set of interrelated stories. But the stories gradually come together in a more novel-like way. All the stories are connected somehow to the prestigious Goode School, in New England, and to its aging and change-resistant headmaster, Goddard Byrd, known to all as “God.” The school is for boys only, but through a clerical error, an African-American girl, Carole, is accepted, and then more girls are accepted, as the tide of history cannot be resisted. These two characters, as well as the widow of an alum of the school -- known as Mei-Mei -- and her daughter -- EV -- are the main characters in this novel. The stories are told in a leisurely yet economical way, focusing on a few key episodes over the period of 1963-2005. Readers may wonder about the significance of the title. It is suitably ambiguous, and could refer both to the upstanding, conservative nature of the school and its supporters, as the organization Daughters of the Revolution (not actually mentioned in the novel) represents, and -- especially -- to the new young women who have made the school coeducational. There is also a 1968 scene from the early days of the (second wave) women’s movement, in which “God” is caught up in, and slightly injured in, a demonstration for women’s rights. This event disorients and distresses him, and becomes a crucial episode in his life. The uses of the names “Goode” for the school and “God” for its head are certainly significant and ironic, and sometimes create amusing but also disturbing situations. The novel gradually reveals a few surprises, including a fairly big one near the end, one that is seemingly casually dropped into the story. It has to do with a main character's identity, and it connects with another revelation about a friendship and a tragic event, one that shows the deep class divide that the school papers over but cannot completely conceal. Now that I have read both “The Bostons” and “Daughters of the Revolution,” Carolyn Cooke is definitely on my list of authors whose new books I will always look out for, find, and read. I just hope Cooke will not wait another ten years, as she did between the above two books, to write and publish another book.

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