A Family Affair

A Family Affair "Thirty-Three Swoons," an intriguing new novel from Martha Cooley, cooks up complex family dynamics with a theatrical flair.
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Contemporary novels that cast the stage as their backdrop are not so plentiful that theatregoers can afford to pass one by when it makes an appearance in the "New Fiction" section of the local bookstore. So show folk and show lovers should sit up and take notice of "Thirty-Three Swoons," Martha Cooley's follow-up to her well-received debut effort, "The Archivist."

People who make their living in the theatre — a patchwork community that often acts as a surrogate family to its members — will recognize the complex and dysfunctional clan dynamics at the core of Cooley's tale. Camilla, the book's 51-year-old heroine, needs a genealogy chart to keep track of her twisted family tree. Among those she counts closest are the temperamental young Danny, a second cousin who behaves like her daughter; Sam, her ex-husband and current business partner; and Stuart, who is her oldest friend, but functions like a protective brother.

Closer still are a host of family ghosts. These include the Sphinx-like Jordon, Camilla's emotionally withholding perfumer father; Jordon's wife, also named Camilla, who died in Paris giving birth to her namesake; and Eve, Danny's strong-willed, selfish and free-living mother. Eve's recent death sends her survivors reeling, not least of all illegitimate Danny, who's determined to discover the identity of her father.

And then there's the real ghost of the story, for Cooley's tale, while grounded in realism, is framed by a phantasmagorical plot. A scheme is hatched by the invisible doppelganger of famed Russian stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Racked with guilt over his failure to ultimately aid his former host, who was arrested and executed by the Soviets in 1940, this shadow narrator has been searching for a successor spirit ever since, and thinks he has found one in the repressed Camilla. Certainly, Camilla's theatrical environment is one that Meyerhold would have appreciated: She owns The Fourth Wall, a Greenwich Village emporium specializing in theatrical ephemera, while Stuart, a former mime, runs Backstage Books, a theatrical bookstore. Additionally, Cooley structures the novel in a very theatrical manner. Each chapter begins with a dream sequence, taking place in Camilla's head — orchestrated by Meyerhold's former alter ego — and concludes with an "interlude," in which the phantom speaks to the reader and comments on the progress of his project.

Cooley's book has an intriguing stylistic schizophrenia. Primarily a naturalistic story of fractured contemporary souls attempting to make manageable sense of their inner and outer lives, it at times lapses into the trademark devices of a detective novel, as well as a historical novel, with fascinating dissections of the arcane perfume industry and Russian theatre history. At the same time, Cooley's narrator keeps pulling and pushing the story into the shape of a play, complete with such theatrical staples as prologue and epilogue, painted faces, role playing, masks, mistaken identities, red herrings and a late-act denouement. A reader accustomed to the stage would no doubt make for the book's ideal audience.