Published March 2011
Source: the publisher and Kathleen at Goldberg McDuffie Communications
"The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belong to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life...The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator."
-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley, from his 1873 opinion in Bradwell v. Illinois, denying Mrs. Myra Bradwell the right to practice law.
In 1979 in the first hour of the first day of the first year of law school, four young women suddenly find themselves with new nicknames, instantly becoming the four Ms. Bradwells. Mia, the savant; Betts, the funny one; Ginger, the rebel; and Laney, the good girl. Although the women all come from very different backgrounds, in each other they find the kind of friendship that will last, that will survive, a lifetime.
Thirty years later, Betts is sitting in front of a Congressional panel, hoping to become the first immigrant ever to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. It's something she has wanted all of her life and her three friends have come to support her. Her appointment is all but a done deal until one of the Congressmen asks:
"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?"Quickly the four friends make a dash for that very same home on an island in the Chesapeake Bay. It is the home of Faith Cook Conrad, mother of Ginger and feminist activist, who has recently passed away. With that question hanging in the air, being on that island and surrounded by the ghost of Faith, the four women are forced to confront what happened that week in 1982 that reshaped all four of their lives.
Sometimes a book comes into your hands at just the right time. After a string of books about and/or written by men (many of which I loved), I was ready for a book about strong women. Certainly The Four Ms. Bradwells starts with a premise so common in women's literature that I often bypass them as likely to offer nothing new, the idea of four women who have been friends for decades and have issues to work through. To be sure, Clayton does pull out some of the usual tricks. Of course all four women bring into the story their own issues and there are the usual hard feelings over things said and done long ago.
But Clayton doesn't allow her story to get mired down in cliches. Each of the four friends is well-developed and the relationship between the four is realistic. While they love and rely on each other, they are not above sniping at one another and occasionally dwelling on their flaws. Mia's inability to maintain a relationship with a man, Bett's inability to move on long after the death of her husband, Ginger's inability to move out from under the shadow of her mother, and Laney's mounting feelings of guilt.
Ginger is certainly the most complex character, using poetry as a shield from her true emotions. I did feel that the poetry, and Laney's use of Latin to hide behind, was sometimes excessive. The ending felt a bit too tidy for me and it took a long time to get there. The story alternated narrative points of view between the four women and shifted back and forth in time. Occasionally this meant an overlapping of the details and sometimes it got confusing as to what time period the characters were in. Overall this was not a problem, though, and worked well to explain the reasons for the women's behavior.
The issues the death brings up can be related to by all women and it's what makes this so much more than the usual book about a group of women. While there is the mystery of that death, this is most decidedly not a murder mystery, but a book about relationships, courage, and standing up for your beliefs.