Carolyn Cooke‘s debut novel, Daughters of the Revolution, deserves a fairer shake than what it got in the Washington Post from Jonathan Yardley, who wrote that it “is almost wholly without redeeming qualities.” Yardley’s argument, in essence, is that the book is failure as a prep-school novel in the manner of Louis Auchincloss‘ The Rector of Justin. Cooke, Yardley writes, neglects substance for the sake of taking shots at WASP patriarchy, deals in heavy-handed lectures about identity politics, and “has a fetish for names that belabor the obvious” such as calling the troubled school at the book’s center the Goode School and giving its self-satisfied headmaster the nickname God.
But given that Daughters of the Revolution features a character who has her nipple grafted onto her forehead after it was bitten off by her abusive husband, Auchincloss may not exactly be the appropriate reference point for this book.
(Also: Left unexplained in Yardley’s review is why God’s name belabors the obvious while the name of the hero of Rector, Justin Martyr, doesn’t.) (See comment below.) In any event, Cooke’s episodic, impressionistic novel isn’t concerned with prep-school life per se. What she wants to explore is how the constrictions of such places shape a person years after she’s left it, in how much of its tutelage she accepts or rejects.
Central to that discussion is EV, the character Cooke follows the most closely and engagingly. EV knows life under the Goode School’s shadow: Her late father was an alumnus and her mother was once romantically entangled with God. Across the years the book covers—the early 60s to 2005—EV escapes New England, endures bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad neighbors, ultimately arriving at sense of independence: “Now she knew: I can say yes; I can say no.” Key to that feeling, Cooke argues, is her learning when to embrace Goode’s lessons and when to reject them. In one chapter she spends a summer delving into Moby-Dick, “which turned out to contain some fairly urgent dispatches”—she quotes passages from it relating to integrity, individuality, and backbone as she pursues a lazy fling. But just as meaningful to her is the cache of pornography she discovers in her great-aunt’s home after she dies. “I learned the structure, the shape of the sexual story. The magazines called to me more strongly than Moby-Dick, which I’d been assigned for a course called Leviathans of Literature: Scaling the Immense American Novel.”
The ridiculous course title suggests what Cooke is up to—she isn’t using her characters to annihilate the entries in the canon, just the way the canon becomes puffed up by a sense of privilege. The contradictions inherent in “appropriate” learning is something the other lead female character, Carole, gets at when she recalls her experience as the first black female student at Goode: “My whole consciousness was black and poor and female every second of every day. The experience damaged, sharpened, and defined me, and I would not trade it for anything.”
God, too, is often ridiculous, priding himself on his progressiveness while blinkered to his prejudices. (“What do women want? Women on the syllabus when they haven’t read what’s on the syllabus. Birth-control pills! Hup! They want to be lesbians! They don’t know what they want; they’re ungrateful, hostile and sexed-up. We have been notoriously liberal and fair-minded.”) Yet God isn’t solely set up for mockery. He has an interior life throughout the novel, and he’s increasingly willing to question his assurances—if only to himself. “How sternly he had believed in himself! He had put that fire into every boy he could; he’d taught them that these poems, these rhythms, these meters, these themes, these characters were better than all the rest. How did he know? Who had told him? What if he’d been wrong?”
The tragedy of the novel isn’t that prep schools or privilege ruin lives, or anything so didactic. The tragedy is God’s incapacity to acknowledge his privilege to anybody but himself, and then only obliquely. Daughters of the Revolution reveals the consequences of that incapacity.