“Such encounters supply their own form of drama, reminding me that although I am no actress, I can still play my part in the theatre of the absurd” (26)
In Thirty-Three Swoons, Martha Cooley delivers a tightly-constructed novel that is imbued with the essence of theatre.
The year is 1999. Camilla Archer, the novel's protagonist, is a middle-aged woman who owns a memorabilia shop called “The Fourth Wall” (a clever theatre reference, such as abound in this book). Divorced for nine years, she has a married lover and is still friendly with her ex-husband. Though childless, she has always been a mother figure for her cousin Eve's daughter Danny.
When Eve dies unexpectedly, Danny comes to Camilla full of difficult questions, questions about Eve's past that Camilla simply cannot answer. Around this same time, Camilla starts to have very strange, very vivid dreams. These dreams include her father, a famous perfumist who died nineteen years earlier, and a strange masked man.
In the novel's prologue, a mysterious character named Dapertutto introduces himself as Vsevolod (Seva) Meyerhold’s doppelgänger, unemployed since the Russian theatre director’s untimely death during the Stalinist purges. He, apparently, is the director of Camilla's dreams.
As Dapertutto tells us, "After [Meyerhold's] passing, I had but one aim: to perpetuate the remarkable mental energies that had been generated by our collaboration" (7). He waited almost sixty years for “the receptor to whom, [he] decided, Seva's energies might at last be fruitfully transmitted…" (229), Camilla.
In order to help Danny deal with her grief, Camilla is forced to both ask and answer those hard questions. As she begins digging into her past, Camilla learns that there was more to Eve than met the eye. This leads to more tough questions, but this time those questions are about her own life and her own family. As the novel progresses, readers begin to understand that Camilla needs more help than Danny does. In fact, it seems that Dapertutto’s explanation of Danny’s grief--"the chief challenge she faced wasn't finding herself suddenly alone after her mother's death, but rather being forced to manage unwieldy emotions" (68)--fits Camilla perfectly.
At night, Dapertutto works on Camilla's subconscious, while during the day Danny and Camilla’s other loved ones try to break her out of the protective shell in which she’s cocooned herself. Though he has a singular purpose for asserting himself Camilla’s dreams, Dapertutto can't help but become a guardian angel of some sort for her. "I'd seen Vsevolod Meyerhold lose his way, egregiously. Now Camilla Archer wasn't going to lose hers; not if I had anything to do with it" (216).
Though Thirty-Three Swoons is written as a novel, it feels like a play. The main narrator of the novel is the protagonist herself. Dapertutto serves as chorus, speaking only at interludes, during which he prognosticates on both his current and former charges.
The novel is well-plotted, keeping readers interested as its stories unfold. A number of different themes thread through the novel--perfumerie, theatre, dreams--providing cohesion. Thirty-Three Swoons works as a novel precisely because of Cooley’s attention to detail. The accuracy with which Cooley is able to describe the art of perfume-making is evidence of the amount of research that went into this novel.
Cooley bears all the hallmarks of a great writer. Her first novel, The Archivist, was a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. In Thirty-Three Swoons, Cooley has given readers a novel that is both similar to and different from her debut. A psychological novel that showcases Cooley’s understanding of the human condition, Thirty-Three Swoons seems to be a study in duality. The novel is both contemporary and historical. Multilayered, it reads as both a novel and a play.