Palo Alto Weekly

- May 13, 2011

Court quartet

Palo Alto novelist follows four compelling characters from law school to the Supreme Court

by Rebecca Wallace "The Four Ms. Bradwells," Meg Waite Clayton; Ballantine Books, New York; 321 pages; $25

There's a reason why so many works of fiction center on four friends as they change over time.

We see our friendships in their friendships, and our fights in their quarrels. It's fascinating to see how four personalities experience, and are affected by, the same events. And there's a vicarious "Where are they now?" feeling that comes from seeing characters grow up.

"The Four Ms. Bradwells," by Palo Alto author Meg Waite Clayton, is a welcome addition to this genre. Deftly plotted and paced, the novel also shows the author's savvy sense for dialogue and the rhythms of longtime friendships.

Mia, Betts, Ginger and Laney meet as budding lawyers in 1979 at the University of Michigan Law School. But we first see them in the present day at the U.S. Senate, where they've gathered as Betts hopes to be appointed to the Supreme Court. A specter from the past emerges during the confirmation hearings, and the friends flee to Ginger's family home on a Chesapeake Bay island. The decades of their friendship unfold in flashbacks and contemporary scenes, as they wait to hear whether Betts will be confirmed after all.

Clayton keeps the plot layered and intriguing, but never confusing, as she shepherds her characters through major life events including marriages, mother-daughter tensions, career achievements and setbacks, births and deaths. Dark secrets from past dark nights on the island are revealed carefully, all in good time.

A common thread running through the novel is the position of women in American society, and the friends' efforts to advance it through their careers and lives, with varying degrees of success.

At one point, Laney, a straight-laced Southerner, faces two kinds of discrimination as a black woman clerking at a prestigious law firm. For her part, Ginger, ever rebellious, ever downplaying her family's wealth, is asked to take dictation at her firm. Level-headed, intelligent Betts is made to fetch coffee and meet a partner for lunch at his men's club, where women are allowed only in the "pink" dining room.

Insightful Mia, who later becomes a journalist, gets the worst of it, suffering questions at her firm about whether women like to sleep in the nude, or if she wears garters.

"This was 1981, when the firms we were joining had no women partners and few women associates," Laney says at one point. "The class that graduated before us marked the first year large firms hired women in substantial numbers, and the medium and small firms had yet to follow suit."

The four friends, in fact, are dubbed "the four Ms. Bradwells" by a law professor when they speak out on behalf of women on the first day of law school. Ginger resents being called "Miss" by the male professor, insisting on "Ms." And all four friends have something to say about the case Bradwell v. Illinois, in which a woman applied for a law license in 1873 but was turned down because of her gender.

Clayton handles the subject of women's roles smoothly, with conviction but without browbeating. There's a resigned humor in her descriptions of the dreadful boxy blue suits and neck bows women felt compelled to wear in the early '80s, and a sympathetic side to characters such as Ginger's trailblazing feminist mother Faith.

The book is also filled with many moving moments, such as when Betts muses on the ways that scandals such as unplanned pregnancy and rape can destroy women in particular. "Men can deny truths women are saddled with. And do," she says.

Other incidents, however, make sense for their symbolic value, but a reader may find them unrealistic.

For instance, there's a lot made of nudity: how for women it can be a vulnerability, a means to camaraderie (I lost count of the number of skinny-dipping scenes), or a weapon. In one of Mia's newspaper stories, she writes about African women who protested an oil company's actions by stripping en masse in public. "A woman's exposure of her body in this society is believed to cast a lifetime curse on those to whom the nakedness is directed," she writes.

But there's no such curse in the Washington, D.C., area. So when later in the novel, one of the Ms. Bradwells gets naked to make a very public point, it just feels stagy and a bit silly.

Another distracting point is the book's overuse of labels for the four friends. The scene in which the women get their Bradwell nicknames in class feels a tad orchestrated. Besides grouping them together in a Bradwell quartet, the professor also gives each woman a convoluted title such as "Ms. Drug-Lord-Bradwell," which has a vague link to the classroom discussion but is confusing when brought up later.

The author also further muddies the moniker waters by sometimes referring to the women with additional labels. These don't always fit. Mia, for instance, is called "The Savant," when Laney is the one who impresses everyone with her textbook grasp of Latin. And Betts is dubbed "The Funny One," when she comes across as more even-tempered.

All this pigeonholing isn't needed for characters who are compelling and perfectly delineated on their own. Still, once the plot gets rolling, the nicknames don't matter.

The book benefits throughout from atmospheric descriptions and rich detail. Cook Island, where the Ms. Bradwells hide out after the Senate hearing, is so vivid that you'd swear the author had grown up there. Instead, the author says on her website that she was inspired by reading about the real-life Smith Island depicted in Tom Horton's "An Island Out Of Time," and traveled there for research on her own book.

Either way, the reader is right there on the island, in a place where the four Ms. Bradwells popped open a bottle of champagne on their first night.

As Mia describes it, "In the gunshot echo of that cork pop, we'd sent our wishes up into the night sky, into the hoot of an owl and the gurgle of briny-grassy water sucking around in the marshes, the thrum of insects pressing in under the bottomless stars."

Arts & Entertainment editor Rebecca Wallace can be emailed at rwallace@paweekly.com.

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