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The Cosmopolitans

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A modern retelling of Balzac's classic Cousin Bette by one of America's most prolific and significant writers. Earl, a black, gay actor working in a meatpacking plant, and Bette, a white secretary, have lived next door to each other in the same Greenwich Village apartment building for thirty years. Shamed and disowned by their families, both found refuge in New York and in their domestic routine. Everything changes when Hortense, a wealthy young actress from Ohio, comes to the city to "make it." Textured with the grit and gloss of midcentury Manhattan, The Cosmopolitans is a lush, inviting read. The truths it frames about the human need for love and recognition remain long after the book is closed.

377 pages, Paperback

First published March 15, 2016

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About the author

Sarah Schulman

56 books593 followers
Sarah Schulman is a longtime AIDS and queer activist, and a cofounder of the MIX Festival and the ACT UP Oral History Project. She is a playwright and the author of seventeen books, including the novels The Mere Future, Shimmer, Rat Bohemia, After Delores, and People in Trouble, as well as nonfiction works such as The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, and Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. She is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at The City University of New York, College of Staten Island.

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5 stars
179 (29%)
4 stars
248 (40%)
3 stars
130 (21%)
2 stars
42 (6%)
1 star
17 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 91 reviews
Profile Image for Megan.
Author 16 books449 followers
June 14, 2016
This is one of the best novels I have ever read. Elegantly structured, it settles the reader in easy, then startles them continually with what both its characters and author are capable of; and is stylized as a novel of the late 50s, with a certain drollness and a number of winks to the contemporary moment. I am taken in by the novel's ethics, the way it teaches its readers, through its characters, how to be in relation to one another.

The central relationship, I should note, is a long friendship between a white cis straight woman and a black cis gay man; and Schulman is as attuned to the chasms between their points of view and experiences as she is to their comfortable overlaps, what they can and can't learn from one another, the limits to their exchange, the ways in which their different motivations and desires become incompatible and yet, potentially, traversable.

Schulman notes in her afterword that The Cosmopolitans is informed by Balzac's Cousin Bette and Baldwin's Another Country -- I also see James in here, specifically The Beast in the Jungle, which focuses on the relationship between a possibly closeted gay (or, in other interpretations, asexual) white man and a straight white woman, his lifelong companion. This narrative corrects James's withholding of May's point of view and imagines that such a relationship--one defined by nonsexual lifelong friendship--may be not a mask or pretense, but a valued, prioritized relationship, a space where truth can be found and honored.
Profile Image for Samantha.
190 reviews19 followers
May 11, 2016
Bette, a white, single, older woman lives across the hall from her dear friend Earl, a black, gay, older actor. Times are tough, but they know they will always have have each other - that is until Bette's young cousin Hortense shows up.
I've been thinking about how to write a review for this book, and I just don't know how to other than to say I loved it. The story is engaging, the characters are fantastic, the setting is delightful, and I tore through this. This book deserves a lot more attention than it's getting, and I'm grateful it was selected as my book club book this month. The Cosmopolitans manages to be both serious and funny without ever seeming schlocky or gimmicky and for that alone it deserves lots of praise. A lot of imagination went into this and if you like books about friendship, 20th Century New York City, and/or the difficulties of just being a person in the world, read this book now.
Profile Image for Macartney.
147 reviews75 followers
March 31, 2016
Simply phenomenal from start to finish. A modern masterpiece. In a just world, this is competing for--if not winning--all of this year's literary prizes. Truly am gobsmacked at how good it was. Not to oversell it tho or anything lol. More fulsome review to come.
Profile Image for Eric Piotrowski.
Author 9 books16 followers
August 2, 2016
Full disclosure: I wrote the Wikipedia article for the book upon this novel is based, La Cousine Bette by Honoré de Balzac. Given my intimate familiarity with that classic work — and my love for Ms. Schulman's artistry, ever since I read StageStruck and After Delores —meant my expectations were absurdly high.

I was not disappointed. I don't know James Baldwin as well as I should here, but Schulman does amazing work bringing her characters to life. She imbues them with a kind of humanity we see in the panorama of La Comédie Humaine, but with even more complexity, given the role of race in the middle of the 20th century.

The issue of homosexuality is driven into the core through the character of Earl, who is closest to Wenceslas in Balzac's book — but who achieves a life of his own beyond what Balzac ever depicted of the African diaspora. He is rivaled for sheer humanity here only by Bette, who is at once more and less sympathetic than Balzac's anti-heroine.

I will be processing this novel for some time, as befits a grand work of essential literature — which Schulman's book most certainly is. Obviously it's a must-read for anyone familiar with Balzac and/or Baldwin. But it's got a vibrant life of its own, with important things to say about how we deal with the horrors of a world that won't (or can't) accept us.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,462 reviews560 followers
July 11, 2016
There is a stylized extravagance to Schulman's writing that took me a little while to adjust to. Once I did, I was hooked. The Cosmopolitans is a fascinating, unpredictable, original novel that I couldn't put down.
Profile Image for THT Steph.
211 reviews19 followers
December 7, 2016
This book is just brilliant! I am over the moon. Seriously. The writing is among the most beautiful I have read, and it is a rarity to find such a thing coming off press in 2016. I found it similar in style to James Baldwin's work, and the characters similar in depth. It wasn't until later in the book when I started to find find references to Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and then, upon finishing, I found out that Sarah Schulman has indeed been heavily influenced by Baldwin's writing.
The friendship between main characters, Bette and Earl, spans thirty years from the 1920's through 1950's and the reader is taken on a beautiful, intense journey as the unlikely pair struggle with their feelings, desires, and personal identities. The setting is as though Schulman was living it herself, and I couldn't have seen it more vividly.
The Cosmopolitans is a retelling of Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac, which I have not had the pleasure of reading. From what I have read on it, however, Cousin Bette is a story of violent jealousy, sexual passion, and treachery. Sarah Schulman's retelling includes all of that, as well as dealing with some very difficult issues that were not only true in the time, but still relevant today.
Profile Image for Sassafras Lowrey.
Author 19 books178 followers
April 25, 2016
a must read! Sarah Schulman's work as always is rich both in the creation of space, and in creation of characters and in this case I found the characters captivating, if not always likable. Schulman is brilliant in her depiction of desperation, loss, belonging, biological family rejection and the way that sometimes, broken people come together to build their own families, and the way the act of family creation can open one up to be hurt again. The story took some unexpected turns and was an engaging read through to the end!
Profile Image for J..
455 reviews184 followers
November 28, 2016
The reason you go here, to this book, is that never-neverland location -- Greenwich Village in the late fifties. Where you couldn't swing a cat without snagging a bohemian genius. I won't list them, but you get the impression that the bebop jazz men and the willowy blonde folkies and the playwrights and the abstract expressionists were pretty much crowding the aisles at every bodega, bar and coffee shop. Mr Albee, would you ask Mr Rauschenberg to tell Mr Dylan to pass the salt?

Ms Schulman has some other ideas, but obligingly opens up her novel with a very-Jane-Jacobs tour of the scenery, getting the reader tuned up for a deep dive into the mythic qualities of the neighborhood. Almost right away, though, she goes with a thickly-constructed Ms Lonelyhearts exposition of her main character, the spinsterish Bette, who is of indeterminate age and intent. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what inhibits the exploration of the milieu is that the character is none too adventurous, and that closes down the Wild Beatnik Village aspect. Considerably.

I suppose that makes it sound like I wanted more name-dropping or something. Well, no, but when I realized the plotting was going to be unoriginal and a little bit soppy, I stuck around thinking the heady pre-sixties vibe and the atmospheric village locations would carry the novel.

What transpires instead is some kind of mashup (Shulman hopes) of influences as wide as kitchen-sink authors, urban social parody ala Balzac, and the underworldish glimpses of James Baldwin's black gay village. There are broad caricatures as well as rounded characters, all floating around in this mix, but the whole is slowed down and considerably stalled by the balky prose; no doubt meant to come off as grittily realist, but turns just kind of retro, clunky, in practice.

At first I thought I'd excerpt a couple of the better, more depthy passages from the book, but I'm realizing I didn't think all that much of the whole effort, so why go there. I don't dispute that she's done her research, but there is no magic spark here that lifts the studied, documentary aspect of this off the page, and certainly the potboiler bulk of it sinks her aspirations further. There are reasons, it seems to me.

There are a couple obvious roadblocks here. One is that this is his-fic-- author Shulman was born the year this story takes place, and has no credible reason to know what life was actually like for this mercurial, much-disagreed-about era. Another is that she's really incredibly preoccupied with hanging this experiment on the bones of all the influences she'd like to claim. Some of that would have gone under the average reader's radar if it were not for the insufferably explanatory 'Note On Style' she includes as the final entry in the book. Wherein she takes us all to task in Undergrad Workshop style, re the explicit significance of what clever strategies she's been up to in the book all along. Please.
Profile Image for Tim.
779 reviews33 followers
November 23, 2017
Hell hath no fury like a woman's friendship scorned. Well, in this case, cold calculation, not fury.

"The Cosmopolitans" takes us to 1958 New York City and a decades-long friendship between two lonely souls of about 50 years of age: Bette, a single, heterosexual white woman; and Earl, a single homosexual black man who works in a meatpacking plant and is a struggling actor.

They live in separate, neighboring apartments, but often hang out together. Bette never got over being cut loose and lied to by an older man back in the Midwest; Earl has had a string of unfulfilling or damaging romantic relationships.

Writer Sarah Schulman introduces two women who serve as ticking bombs to these neighbors' relationship. One is Hortense, a younger cousin to Bette and the daughter of the man who spurned her, who comes from Indiana to live with Bette in New York. Hortense becomes involved with the increasingly desperate Earl, who decides assimilation is the better part of loneliness and forsakes his friendship with Bette for a loveless romance. The other is a confident young woman who is hired at the TV advertising agency at which Bette works as a secretary, and all but takes it over. Bette admires her strength and seems to absorb the woman's grit and steely resolve and starts to cold-bloodedly do whatever is necessary to mend her broken friendship with Earl.

Schulman writes sharp and simply and well much of the time, reminding me a little of William Maxwell's quiet wisdom, albeit with a bit too much look-at-me flash and hence not always that quiet.

The set-up is actually better than the turning point and the "action" (such as it is) that results. Though I think the novel is missing another scene that gets us inside the friendship in the first place. Also, Earl seems to jettison Bette on somewhat flimsy pretenses, though perhaps that is the point.

This is a sharp, nicely written character story that shows us the steps people take when they are desperate or when they have lost the one thing they cannot bear to lose.

In the afterward, Schulman notes that the story is a modern retelling of Balzac's "Cousin Bette" and is influenced by James Baldwin's writings. I confess I'm not familiar with the former, but the latter comparison rings true.

This was a marginal winner for me. Quite well done if imperfect, but a little out of my wheelhouse. Those who read more quiet, character-centered relationship novels than I do will probably like it more than I, but I did like it. Schulman is talented. Like Maxwell, she has a knack for getting deep into her characters' psyches; there's more about feelings than what the characters actually do. When done well, as it mostly is here, that's fulfilling reading. There are quite a few nice passages like this in the book: "To love when you are not supposed to is so much deeper than to love as instructed to. They are two different animals. One is imposed, the other discovered."
Profile Image for Allison.
411 reviews3 followers
May 26, 2016
Having read neither "Cousin Bette" by Balzac nor "Another Country" by Baldwin (two things I will fix soon), I was unaware of what to expect from this novel. I read a review of it somewhere and the setting is what grabbed me. "The Cosmopolitans" takes place in Greenwich Village in 1958 and centers around two main characters: Bette, a woman from the Midwest in her 50s who came to NYC 30 years prior in order to escape her horrible family and her broken heart. She has lived in the same apartment building and worked for the same advertising company the entire time and largely spends her time looking out her window at the world of the village and with her neighbor Earl. Earl is an African American, gay actor who works by day in a slaughterhouse and visits Bette every day.He is a sensitive, deeply romantic person who spends most of his days longing to both be a successful actor and longing to be loved and putting himself at risk in the search for both of these things. They are soul mates and develop their relationship over the decades, two outcasts marooned in NYC and offering the comfort of companionship to each other. All is peaceful in their relationship until Bette is one day visited by an unwelcome guest from back home, a young, aspiring actress named Hortense. Their deep friendship is totally uprooted and Bette is devastated, determined to finally confront and get closure from her past and to save her future with the only person in the world she truly cares about.

The writing in this book is remarkable. Schulman evokes 1930s and 1950s NYC with vivid detail and the inner lives of her characters are so evocative and personal that more than once I was in tears with empathy and recognition. I loved both Bette and Earl and was fascinated by all the side characters of this world. I would recommend this book for fans of Balzac, Baldwin and any reader who enjoys character studies and good old fashioned tales of revenge.
31 reviews1 follower
March 10, 2017
I would give it zero stars if I could. So annoying. New York la di da blah blah blah. Had to read it for bookclub, wanted to throw it out the window on numerous occasions, tried to even skim after trudging to the halfway point, and finally just quit. Hated. It.
Profile Image for Rayne.
207 reviews18 followers
April 18, 2018
"If there is one thing I have learned it's this: When you leave someone, you have to leave them with a place to go. If they have no place to go, they can't leave."
Profile Image for Arden.
302 reviews85 followers
April 19, 2021
I enjoyed the writing style at the beginning, the author's observations about people and common behaviours, and I was quite sold on Bette as a character for the majority of the novel. However, I felt the narrative ultimately wasn't very compelling and the plot lacked clear trajectory.
Profile Image for Jenny.
1,017 reviews7 followers
May 15, 2019
I enjoyed this book immensely although I've never read Cousin Bette.
Profile Image for Jimmy R.
35 reviews1 follower
April 12, 2017
After those first hundred pages, I abandoned this book for awhile, partially due to other distractions, partially because Earl's circumstances were so sad, bordering on hopeless. Bette seemed at that juncture to be as contented as a cat with her Village life. Bette was really the one good thing in Earl's life, except for the occasional quickie. I needed a break.

I returned to it yesterday and just finished this dear, sweet, heartbreaking, triumphant tale. While I'm not on intimate terms with Balzac, I sensed James Baldwin's presence from the novel's beginning. Earl strongly reminded me of the real James Baldwin of that time, not the erased homophobic denial of his sexuality that I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO presents, but the man who wrote so beautifully of his yearnings for men. What was it like to be a smart, artistic, gay black man in 1958, even in the liberated Village? This novel captures that and so many other vital truths, like the deep friendships that can develop between gay men and straight women.

And Bette, dear wonderful Bette! Watching her go through her ch-ch-changes was hilarious yet horrifying.

Other reviewers have done a much better job at explaining why this is such a rich and delightful novel. All I can think about right now is going back to page one and reading it again.
Profile Image for Sara.
585 reviews56 followers
August 5, 2016
My first encounter with Sarah Schulman was Gentrification of the Mind, a somewhat braggy account of the devastation of the queer community wrought by the AIDS crisis and the later wave of fusion restaurants and grandstanding white knighters for LGBT rights--the same hetero yuppies now calling themselves queer for being sapiosexual, I imagine. If anything, this novel proves she has a right to brag. Schulman imbues the scenery with immersive yet simple description that reads like memory rather than dry, painstaking research. The result is magnificent. I fell in love with understated realism of the first half and all the over-the-top, Sirkean second half. Jane Wyman gets a TV again, and boy does she know how to use it.
Profile Image for Kim.
192 reviews6 followers
May 4, 2016
It is a rare book that captivates me through characterization alone. This is such a book. In her "note on style" Schulman says, "The book is distinctly stylized to reflect its characters' specific emotional experience of the world. For it is the specificity of their experiences that guides their perceptions, which in turn produces their actions and thereby creates the story." This accurately prepares you for the experience of reading this book; the characters come first. If you like books with a lot of dialogue and action, this might not be the one for you. If you enjoyed Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, I think you will enjoy The Cosmopolitans.
844 reviews10 followers
May 23, 2016
Can the outcasts of society find love and make a community among themselves? That is the question this book poses. I loved it. A retelling of Cousin Bette by Balzac in 50s Greenwich Village. Earl, a gay black actor searching for acceptance, Cousin Bette an outcast from her family, Hortense, Bette's niece.
Their interests and lives collide. The plot is a bit creaky but the pathos of the characters I found so sad and human. In the notes after the book Ms. Schulman writes that in Balzac the men's emotions and actions were the main focus and she wanted to make the women more complete, fleshed out characters.
Plus the setting of Greenwich Village was super and well researched.
Profile Image for Bookforum Magazine.
171 reviews57 followers
August 2, 2016
"In some ways The Cosmopolitans is a straightforward period piece. But it's also an extraordinarily radical and risky (and not always successful) experiment that seizes on what you thought you know about the period only to chop it up and reassemble it in jarringly unexpected shapes."

–Jenny Turner on Sarah Schulman's The Cosmopolitans in the April/May 2016 issue of Bookforum

To read the rest of this review, go to Bookforum:
15 reviews
April 5, 2016
Selected this for my bookclub and it generated a great discussion, not all really liked the book, but all were at least glad they read it. Happy with the choice, interesting characters to talk about as all were not really that likable, and as said in previous reviews, the book took a perspective on non-traditional protagonists.
Profile Image for Véronique.
139 reviews4 followers
August 8, 2016
An extremely compelling account of one woman's struggle with her desire for authenticity and her descent into hypocrisy. Schulman's prose is elegant and richly detailed. A vivid portrait of late 1950's NY & the cast of vibrant characters.
Profile Image for Sue Russell.
114 reviews20 followers
March 23, 2016
I finished this last night, but I'm not quite sure what I think. It was interesting and smart, but I did not love it. Nancy and Kat, have you read the Balzac? I have not. I'm also thinking about reading Baldwin's Another Country, which Schulman mentions in her afterword as another influence.
Profile Image for Ellen Simpson.
Author 2 books65 followers
April 2, 2016
What a trip this book was! I feel like I've been chewed up and spat out while again once more. Bette is truly a fantastic character and Earl, oh Earl. I understood so much of his plight.

Excellent story.
Profile Image for Melody DeMeritt.
146 reviews6 followers
May 23, 2016
Just a fine book overall. I really enjoyed it and loved the depiction of the New York of the mid-50's. The evolution of Bette was wonderful to watch....she changes but never loses her innate values, loving truth and realism. Oh my Sarah Schulman, you hit it out of the park!
Profile Image for Katrina.
971 reviews
June 11, 2016
This is a thoughtful novel written in a unique style and I appreciate the care and attention to late 1950's details that Schulman delivers. The characters are brilliant, human and heartbreaking. This is a novel of deep friendship/kindred spirits and the importance of being true to yourself.
Profile Image for Jaralee.
124 reviews1 follower
July 12, 2016
A wonderful story with a unique characters and a splendid era in mid century NYC that explores the need for human connection and belonging, and how different, yet similar this is for everyone. Very beautiful writing.
Profile Image for Kathy.
80 reviews
March 3, 2017
When I started reading this book I wasn't really into it. So, I decided to give it 100 pages. Then I decided that I must just not have gotten to the good part yet. Sad to say there was no good part. Lackluster characters and an uninspiring plot. Shooo. Don't torture yourself.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 91 reviews

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