It’s 1963 in Cape Wilde, Mass. Heck Hellman is an aspiring doctor who takes a break from anatomy and dissection for a weekend canoe paddle with a friend. He kisses his wife, Lil, and his toddler daughter, EV, and walks out the door. He will drown in just a few hours and the viewpoint of this book will shift to Lil, who prefers to be called Mei-Mei, and the daughter, EV.
Mei Mei and EV stay in Cape Wilde where there is a distinguished boy’s boarding school, the Goode School (Heck is an alumnus), run by a headmaster named Goddard Byrd, called by the shortened version of his name - God. It is God Byrd who is the focus of the middle part of the book.
God is needy in many ways, and he has an affair with a member of the school’s board of trustees, Mrs. Viktor Rebozos. She is one of the people pushing to bring female students to the Goode School. One day in 1968 after an assignation with Mrs. Rebozos at a hotel (there’s quite a bit of sex in the book), God leaves feeling all is well and then has a life-changing experience.
“It’s spring of that revolutionary year, not too far in. Meringues of snow line the sidewalks, but a freshness cuts the air.” God walks right into a protest march where a bomb explodes, injuring him slightly. The larger implication is that the blast has blown away the old order. The world is changing. There is a revolution going on, a social uprising.
One of the revolutionary things that happens is God’s wife leaves him.
“Gamely he mounts the stairs, reaches for her pale blue robe. She emits a feral roar and pushes him away with one hand at the center of his chest; the other hand grips the pineapple post. His hands, now empty, grasp air.”
So God is left alone and in need of all sorts of assistance. When Mei-Mei takes a job typing his memoir, God sees that she might help him with other, more intimate needs. Mei-Mei and EV wind up living with God.
Cooke creates a world in flux at the Goode School, which has never admitted girls. It’s the ‘60s, and enlightened consciousness demands that minorities be admitted. Shrinking enrollment and the reduced income that come with it are also concerns.
So a girl comes to Goode: Carole Faust, admitted almost by error when a secretary mistakes her first name for the male name “Carroll.” So Faust, who is the daughter of a poor maid from the West Indies, joins the student body. Faust is also the illegitimate child of Archer Rebozos - of the Rebozos family who sit on the Goode School Board. Rebozos is also the friend whom Heck Hellman was with when he drowned in the canoeing accident. Such threads tangle through the plot of Daughters.
New England "fatherless child" boy’s school - all that might sound familiar to fans of John Irving, especially the ones who have read The World According to Garp. It’s clear that Cooke, who teaches creative writing in California, owes a debt to Irving. But Cooke has her own voice, and the pacing of her writing is much quicker, so she produces a short book instead of the massive tome (609 pages) Irving wrote.
In the last section of the book, it becomes EV’s story. By that time, the characters have been established. They are vivid and memorable, the same way Irving’s are. The plot, however, doesn’t advance as much as it seems to accrue, jumping around in time and place and from voice to voice in an anecdotal fashion. The individual chapters are very cohesive and read like short stories, but they don’t focus on any central issue or question.
The talented Cooke has a very readable, clear writing style and this is a good book. When she gains more control over plot, she will write an even better one.
DAUGHTERS OF THE REVOLUTION
By Carolyn Cooke; Knopf, $24.95; 173 pp.