I read Cooley’s first novel, The Archivist, and admired the way she layered three different stories. She uses a similar motif in Thirty-Three Swoons, which tells the stories of Camilla Archer and her niece Danny, their deceased parents, and a Russian director killed by the Communist government he supported through its rise, Seva Meyerhold. The device for this interweaving is Meyerhold’s and Camilla’s doppelganger, a seemingly spiritual force that ties Meyerhold, Camilla’s father, and Camilla together.
Camilla’s father was a brilliant perfumist who married her mother after a long relationship just shortly before her birth, which her mother did not survive. Camilla is haunted by her father’s inaccessibility and his favoring of her cousin, Eve, with whom Camilla and her father lived following her mother’s death. Eve’s father, too, was inaccessible, and her mother dead. There is a stepmother, but she is a vague presence in Camilla’s recollections who did not fill the gap either girl felt.
Enter family complication #3. Eve, a good deal older than Camilla, became pregnant with no-one-knew-whom, and gave birth to Danny, whom she then seemed incapable of giving the closeness she lacked from her own parents. Camilla and her husband, Sam, become surrogate parents until, unable to agree to have their own child, they amicably divorced and he had a son with his second wife, all of whom get along swimmingly. Enter Stuart, Camilla’s gay best friend, and you have the full cast of characters.
Camilla co-owns a theater memorabilia shop with Sam, who runs a photography book business, and Stuart owns a book shop. All of this leaves them with flexible schedules and interesting conversation set pieces.
So what’s the problem? Eve has recently died of a sudden onset of spinal meningitis and Danny is not coping well. She pushes Camilla to answer questions about her father to which Camilla has no answers. Camilla herself is struggling with her feelings about Eve and her role in her demise. Meyerhold’s double begins playing with Camilla’s dreams and brings to the forefront her unresolved feelings about her father while telling the reader about Meyerhold and how he ended up being executed by a firing squad after spending months in a Soviet prison.
There’s plenty of guilt to go around. Camilla suspected Eve had spinal meningitis, but stayed quiet at Eve’s request. She helped her terminally ill father commit suicide. She ended her marriage because she refused to become a mother. Her birth killed her own mother. And Meyerhold’s double did not stop him from committing the errors that led to his death.
I know little about theater, which is a unifying theme, but the interwoven stories of guilt and mistakes that make a family should seem familiar to anyone who did not grow up in a bubble.
I look forward to Cooley’s third novel, but hope she experiments with a new device to express her keen insight into troubled hearts.