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The Cosmopolitans

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  561 ratings  ·  85 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 377 pages
Published March 15th 2016 by Feminist Press
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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Jun 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 friendshi
Apr 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bookclub
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 attenti
Feb 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Brilliant and beautiful. A masterwork.
Eric Piotrowski
Mar 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novels, feminism, lgbtq
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
Jul 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Nov 27, 2016 rated it it was ok
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 so
Nov 19, 2017 rated it liked it
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
Apr 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 bui ...more
THT Steph
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 friendshi
Sassafras Lowrey
Apr 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
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 enga ...more
Feb 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"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." ...more
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book immensely although I've never read Cousin Bette. ...more
Jimmy R
Mar 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 Balz
Jun 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 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 tha ...more
May 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
May 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
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 em
Bookforum Magazine
"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:
Mar 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Sue Russell
Mar 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Ellen Simpson
Mar 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
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.
Melody DeMeritt
Apr 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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! ...more
Sarah Townsend
Apr 14, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: book-club
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.
Jun 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Jul 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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.
Mar 03, 2017 rated it did not like it
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. ...more
Luann Ritsema
Mar 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
And be sure to read "A Note On Style" at the end. ...more
Dec 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Loved this tale. I could picture it on the stage. She tied up all the loose ends.
Jun 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club, 2017
I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. This was a book club read, and at first, I was thrown off/intimidated by the references to Balzac's Cousin Bette, which I haven't read. After the first couple chapters, though, the story really drew me in. Schulman creates such an alive and vibrant portrait of midcentury Manhattan and the characters of Bette and Earl are intriguing. I could sense her skills as a playwright. The writing style was super efficient and could so clearly evoke an emotion or fe ...more
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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: ...more

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