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The Four Ms. Bradwells

Fiction by Meg Waite Clayton

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The Four Ms. Bradwells

By Meg Waite Clayton

Ballantine Books; hardcover

No, The Four Ms. Bradwells isn’t a novel unwinding the juicy tales of four ladies that were married at one point to Mr. Bradwell—although the cover’s pearl necklace would work for that book too. It’s named for the 1873 court case Bradwell v. Illinois in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley denied Mrs. Bradwell the right to practice law simply because of her gender. In 1979, Meg Waite Clayton’s fictional female law students are nicknamed after the case by their professor during a discussion of it on their first day of class: Ginger Conrad Cook was Ms. Decisis-Bradwell, Laney Weils was Ms. Cicero-Bradwell (as she knows Latin), Mia Porter was Sergeant Porter/Terrorist-Bradwell, and Betts Zhukovski was Ms. Drug-Load Bradwell (the names made sense at the time).

Now, 30 years later, Betts is under scrutiny as she waits for an appointment to the Supreme Court, and they all must face the consequences of an accident that happened during their last spring break together at school, when they were already interning at law firms and looking forward to the beginnings of their careers. The novel bounces between the present, which finds them holed up at Ginger’s dead mother Faith’s old-money compound on Cook Island in Southern Maryland and worried about the truth coming out—a truth of which none of them are certain—and the past, when they were young women at that same house enjoying a week off that resulted in a dead young man.

As their combined histories unravel, we learn that one got raped and they all covered it up. Smart, strong, and ambitious—Faith always told them, “Connections and timing. You girls are going to have both [italics author’s].”—they still believed there was no way their reputations and their futures would stay intact if they accused the rapist, a successful young lawyer and member of the Conrad Cook family.

Sexual harassment was tolerated in the 1980s as it was in the ’50s, and the four women “played by the old rules; if you didn’t, you’d sure enough be shown the door. No one would ever admit you were let go because you’d ruffled feathers, but the truth was if a prominent partner liked to kiss young associates in the elevator, your job as the young associate was to avoid any elevator he might be on.” It was a climate in which you could do no wrong and still be at fault; as Faith once observed, “The press can make a nice girl into a slut without even trying [italics author’s].

The story offers a look at second-wave feminism through four members in action, but the novel is bogged down by all these plot questions about who knew what and why they kept quiet if they did know something and who wrote that Washingtonian blog alongside existential pondering such as, “How do you fight that deeply imbedded [sic] idea that at some level any woman can be charged with ‘wanting it’?” and the totally unnecessary, “Was mother ever lonely like this? Behind the frantic activism she lived and breathed for all the world to see, did she ever feel anyone knew her? Did she ever wonder if the person she’d grown up to be was the person she meant to become?” It’s like these women never questioned a thing during their 50-something years and let loose the query cannons once returning to Cook Island.

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