Daughters of the Revolution
- Carolyn Cooke
- Alfred A. Knopf
- 173 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- June 22, 2011
A cast of unusual characters populates this debut novel by a prize-winning short story writer.
In 1968, Heck Hellman and his friend Rebozos embark on an ill-fated kayak trip off Wilde Point, Mass. Heck drowns while Rebozos, wearing the only life vest, is rescued by a woman on shore. Thus begins Carolyn Cooke’s debut novel, clearly informed by her skill as a short story writer. (Her celebrated 2001 collection The Bostons won the PEN/Robert Bingham Award.) The novel is structured like a series of stories, with each chapter set in a different year, ranging from 1963 to 2005 – sometimes told in third person, sometimes in first person. The characters and narrators are linked by their connection to the Goode School, run by Goddard Byrd, or God.
Many characters here have symbolic names and relationships. There is also a Mrs. O’Greefe, a Mrs. Graves, EV (Heck Hellman’s daughter, mispronounced “Eve” by one character), Carole Faust and Pilgrim. God comes in as third-person narrator as well as a character in other people’s narratives. He re-reads and teaches Heart of Darkness. He has a list of “necessary” books, written mostly by men. His favorite motto is “over my dead body.” When Carole Faust becomes the first female student of color to be admitted, it is only because of a clerical error.
The dissolute landscape of this novel relies heavily on wacky extraneous detail. You don’t know what is important and what isn’t. When we meet Heck Hellman he is “walking home from gross anatomy and his basement cadaver,” but this has no impact on the story, nor is it developed. A bomb blast outside the Parker House in Boston follows God’s rendezvous with Rebozos’s wife. God then walks home in a state of shock to discover that his wife is leaving him. Following a sexual assault, a minor character who appears in a couple of chapters has her nipple sewn onto her forehead, but we never learn much more about her. Such exaggerated episodes place this novel firmly in the hysterical-realism genre and hold the reader at arm’s length.
The writing becomes more absorbing after God’s wife leaves him and he realizes all he will miss, or when Hellman’s daughter, EV, catalogues the stories that fuel her mother Mei Mei’s world view. In such passages, I longed for characters more fully drawn. Cooke never presents them with the complexity that God and EV describe.
The most compelling chapters are from EV’s point of view. Here Cooke’s writing flows and sparkles. You sense that she’s most confident in this voice, and relaxes deeper into the characters and storytelling. Her wit, character observation and language are best in the “Cold Case” and “EV in New York” chapters, perhaps because there is something exploratory here. She has been “urged to find meaningful work exploring careers, advancing social justice or reveling in the arts.”
But on the whole, the characters in Daughters of the Revolution are not even pretending to search for meaning. Instead, they are victims of their own worst habits and instincts. They are hollow at the center, and because they are often motivated by loss, the reader begins to feel about them like Mei Mei feels about P. Cornblum’s kiss: “There was nothing exploratory or sensory. … It was all transmission, no reception.”
God is more like the lack of God. Although his eyes fill with tears when he speaks of Martin Luther King Jr. and “a dream of equality that was even now being realized,” he has hijacked the message, rendering it meaningless. Nor is Carole Faust influenced by King’s dream or his cautionary words against hatred. The secret to her success is anger and opposition to God. EV’s mother, Mei Mei, lives by the motto “Be careful. Don’t die.” Her whole identity, according to EV, “is wrapped in her tragedy. She is defined, engrossed, and fulfilled by it.” To Mei Mei, it is the grimmest stories that make the most sense.
Nevertheless, when you close the book you feel the force of its inventiveness. This is a world where a beautiful sky, dappled in clouds, reminds Mei Mei of drowned souls. You understand that these souls have populated EV’s world and made up her reality. Cooke’s examination of her landscape from her characters’ various perspectives and angles is an accomplishment. I expect she has more books in her. Daughters of the Revolution is just the beginning.
Amanda Holmes Duffy teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. She has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker. Her stories, published under Amanda Holmes, have appeared in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie and Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone.“Russian Music Lessons,” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.