A fable of female empowerment and liberation is concealed—like a frail virgin’s body under heavy layers of clothing—within the melodramatics of Cooney’s sixth novel (Gun Ball Hill, 2004, etc.).
Set in New England in 1900, it’s the story of Charlotte Heath, a putative orphan who has married into an oppressively prosperous Massachusetts family, “failed” in health (polio is suspected) and as a potential breeder, and been shocked to discover her husband in the embrace of another woman. Befriended by a family of outcast bakers (falsely accused of poisoning their neighbors), Charlotte flees to Boston and the Beechmont, the eponymous domicile where “gentle ladies” receive more than the usual considerations from the stunningly handsome young men who seem to be employed there. Among the flamboyant characters Charlotte meets, and with whom she becomes variously involved, are the Beechmont’s unctuous owner Harry Alcorn and his morphine-addicted wife Lucy, diminutive medical student (and surprisingly potent amorist) Arthur Pym, a wheelchair-bound lady painter, a “factory boy” turned police detective, assorted overworked and underprivileged cooks and maids and housekeepers, a truculent woman doctor (Charlotte’s aunt by marriage) and famed cookbook author Fannie Farmer (who has a keen eye for a likely-looking lad). Cooney exhibits a sure grasp of period detail, and a knack for concocting suitable Dickensian grotesqueries, as Charlotte masters her illness, overcomes fears “that the desires of her body were things to be ashamed of,” investigates the possibility that her orphanhood is a myth and prepares to settle the hash of her smugly patriarchal and patronizing husband. Though the Gothic effects are fun, the novel’s structure is chaotic. Cooney repeatedly departs from present action into extended flashbacks without making clear transitions—and an entire sequence in which Charlotte returns to the town where she grew up seems to come out of nowhere.
A fitfully engaging book that ought to have been a much better one.