Meg Waite Clayton on The Four Ms. Bradwells The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pearls
I’m the custodian of an embarrassment of pearls, the first of which I bought on my first trip overseas--to Spain one summer during law school--but the rest of which were gifts. One strand, improbably, came from the vice-mayor of Wuxi, China, at the end of an eleven-course dinner honoring my dad. Two are family heirlooms: a strand my dad gave my mom, who gave them to me; and a double strand like the ones on the cover of The Four Ms. Bradwells
, which were my husband’s grandmother’s and then his mother’s before coming to me. Like the pearls Ginger inherits from Faith in the novel, my two sets of family pearls are the ones I most enjoy lending to friends, my little sisterhood of the traveling pearls. A close third: my “Paris pearls.”
My Paris Pearls are my favorite, only in part for the story that goes with them. Mac’s and my honeymoon itinerary included a last few days in Monte Carlo, but we fell in love with the Italian Lake District before we made it there, and refused to leave. We planned a replacement trip to France for our anniversary, but by then I was pregnant and having complications; the baby’s heart wasn’t beating, and when it started finally, my doctor suggested I stay close to home. The tickets were already bought, though, and with one stepson already studying in Paris, I suggested Mac take his other son in my place.
Long story short, there was Mac, with his sons, at a Monte Carlo roulette wheel, betting my birthday in honor of me. He slid his chips over higher odds possibilities to settle, 1,000 francs each, on the 11, 5, and 9. My birthday: 1/1/59. A croupier sent the little ball circling the tilted track. The Clayton boys watched the only way one can watch a roulette wheel: knowing the odds are impossible, but hopeful anyway. The ball, in its final slow circle, bypassed thirty-six numbers to drop into … well, no one remembers where, but it wasn’t the 11, 5, or 9. Undaunted, Mac re-upped. 1,000 francs each. 11. 5. 9. Same circling ball. Same watching. Same hopefulness. The ball, in its final slow circle, again bypassed thirty-six other pockets to drop into … the 11. 1/1. My birthday.
Heeding Einstein’s advice, “You cannot beat a roulette table unless you steal money from it,” Mac cashed in his chips and fled to Paris, where he chose a strand of pearls with a looped gold clasp that looks remarkably like the one at Betts’s throat as she’s considered for the Supreme Court.
Improbable? All my pearls come with improbable stories. But stories, like pearls, aren’t meant to be examined separate from the whole of their string. They’re meant to settle gently around your neck, to be enjoyed again and again, for moments or hours or days, and loaned to friends, and eventually passed out of one hand into another, to share the love. That’s the hope I have for The Four Ms. Bradwells
: that readers will come together to share this story, and pass it along to friends.
Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters (2009), has created another tale about a group of female friends that tells the stories of many women. Mia, Lainey, Betts, and Ginger become best friends at law school in 1979, at the cusp of the feminist movement. Now Betts is navigating a Senate hearing to confirm her Supreme Court appointment, and she and her friends have reunited. When a long-buried, dark story from their shared history is dug up, the four escape the media at Ginger's family's home on a remote island, which is also the scene of the controversial event. There the women reflect on their past, their relationships with each other and their mothers, and how societal norms led them to hide shocking sexual abuse. Clayton unfolds the story through flashbacks and present-day narration in each woman's voice. Despite some clunky exposition, this is a stirring and compelling novel about women's changing roles. --Aleksandra Walker