They met during the first class on their first day of law school: Ginger, Laney, Betts, and Mia. It was 1979 and they were discussing Bradwell v. Illinois in their Constitutional Law class. As they were called upon to recite the facts and holding of the case, as well as their thoughts about the decision, their professor playfully dubbed them “Ms. Decisis-Bradwell,” “Ms. Cicero-Bradwell,” “Ms. Drug Lord-Bradwell,” and “Ms. Terrorist-Bradwell,” and from that moment on, they were known as the four Ms. Bradwells. They have been friends ever since.
Now Betts, a respected law professor, has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Just as her confirmation hearing is drawing to a close, however, a question is posed that all four women had hoped never to hear: “I’d like to ask you what you know about a death that occurred in the spring of 1982, at a home in Maryland where I believe you were a guest?” Betts delivers the line she rehearsed with Mia, noting that she has nothing to add to the public record on that matter. Then the four of them leave as quickly and graciously as possible, while evading reporters’ questions, and head to Cook Island on Chesapeake Bay to spend the weekend at Ginger’s family’s summer home, accessible only by boat. There, the four women will decide how to address the question that has been prompted by speculation published in a blog that perhaps the death of Ginger’s cousin, Trey Humphrey, during spring break thirty years ago, was not really suicide, as was ruled so many years ago.
Over the course of the weekend, as the women hide from the press, the details of their lives are revealed and the question of what really happened during that spring break explored.
Through the alternating voices of her four main characters, author Meg Waite Clayton tackles a number of subjects, primarily female friendship and the bonds that hold women together over the years through happy times and crises. Clayton obviously understands, as will female readers, that the experience of law school cemented the four women’s friendship which has remained strong in the ensuing years as they have married, divorced or been widowed, undergone career changes, given birth to and raised children. Through it all, they have served as each other’s support system, inextricably connected because of their ever-growing mutual histories. And so when Betts stands before the U.S. Senate in hopes of being confirmed as the next member of the Supreme Court, a dream she revealed back when they had just begun law school, the other three women are, of course, there with her in solidarity, support, and friendship.
That is not to say that their friendships are not full of the usual doubts, secrets, and never-spoken resentments. Many of those feelings surface as the four women — reunited on the island for the first time since that fateful spring break that ended with Trey Humphrey dead — tentatively explore what really happened back then, and how they are going to deal with the press and Senate inquiries now. In addition to Betts’s nomination, Laney’s Congressional campaign hangs in the balance. Both women are confident that they will lose.
The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. [The] paramount destiny and mission or woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.~Bradwell v. Illinois (1873) Holding: Mrs. Myra Bradwell was denied the right to practice law
Of course, the friendship of the Ms. Bradwells was born during a time of transition in America, when Ginger’s activist attorney mother, Faith, who has recently died, was fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Faith looms large in the story because of her relationship with and heavy influence upon the four women. She had high expectations for all of them, especially Ginger, and hers is a large shadow which has, it becomes increasingly clear, swallowed Ginger up to a large extent. But will the events of this weekend empower her to step outside that shadow and begin a new chapter of her life, unfettered by a compulsion to live up to her mother’s standards?
Clayton neatly binds her exploration of the changing roles of women both in law and society into the mystery that has driven the women to the island. What really happened to Trey? Did he commit suicide up in the island lighthouse? Or was he murdered? And if so, by whom? Who had a motive? As it turns out, all four Ms. Bradwells had reasons to wish Trey dead. But could any of them have killed him and made his death appear to have been a suicide or accident?
Have women’s roles really changed in the thirty years that have elapsed? Would an act of violence committed against a woman be treated any differently by the police today than it would have been thirty years ago when the Ms. Bradwells collectively chose not to report what happened during that spring break? Men are aggressive; women are bitches. Men sew their wild oats; a woman who chooses to have a couple of drinks and skinny dip in the moonlight in mixed company is a slut asking for the wrong kind of attention. Is that still the way society views male and female conduct, or have we progressed in our thinking?
The subject matter—friends helping each other through the kinds of challenges women face—is a reflection of those friendships, too. But it’s also a celebration of the women who came before me—who opened the world to me and to women of my generation—and an acknowledgement that there is still more change to be made. And a small measure of hope, I suppose, that writing about it will help move things along.~ Author Meg Waite Clayton
Clayton explores the power of secrets. Each Ms. Bradwell has maintained secrets in concert with all or some of the others, as well as kept her own counsel concerning the others’ behavior, choices, and whether or not one of them might have been capable of murdering Trey. The identity of the blogger who recently spawned the speculative rumor is also a secret. Does one of the Ms. Bradwells know who wrote the story that threatens to derail Betts’s confirmation? And does that mean that one of them violated the others’ confidence by sharing information with that blogger that up until now only the four of them knew?
The Four Ms. Bradwells poses more questions than it ever answers, but it is a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes infuriating look back at the way our cultural norms have shifted — or, in some ways, not changed at all — over the past three decades. Although the changing narrative voice sometimes distracts from the flow of the story and bogs down the action, the technique succeeds in communicating the various viewpoints and emotions of the four distinctly different female characters. Their histories are intertwined in sometimes surprising ways that reveal and reinforce the depth of their immersion in each other’s lives through the years.
Ginger is easily the most intriguingly complex of the four, born into wealth and privilege, and haunted by the troubled relationship she had with Faith. She regrets that so much was left unspoken between them, even as her friends realize and attempt to convince her of her mother’s deep and abiding love for her, a love that Ginger was never really able to feel. But the other characters are fully developed, as well, their stories fascinating. Betts, for instance, is the first immigrant being considered for the Court. She was raised by her mother, a doctor in Poland, who ended up cleaning toilets in America in order to give her daughter the opportunities about which she dreamed. Betts’s father was lost during a political uprising, but she dreams that she might still meet him. Perhaps he will see her on television in conjunction with her nomination and contact her. Mia enjoyed a dalliance with one of the young men who was on the island during that spring break, even though she was, at the time, already engaged to Andy. Their relationship was doomed from the start due to circumstances beyond their control. In the ensuing years, Mia has wandered the globe working as a journalist. Now she has been downsized out of a job and is unsure of her next move. She’d still like to find love and thought she had, at one point. Might her recently-ended romance be the catalyst for the crisis the women find themselves managing now? And finally, there is Laney, who survived, married, and has four children. She is the front-runner for a seat in Congress, but will the revelation of the truth about that spring break cause her to lose the election? After all, she firmly believes that she did nothing wrong, but fears whether the public will see it that way, given the discriminatory manner in which women are treated when crimes committed against them are reported. The old double-standards caused her to maintain her silence for thirty years. Can she continue to do so?
Book clubs will love The Four Ms. Bradwells because the issues the book addresses provide such rich material for discussion.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of The Four Ms. Bradwells free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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