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The Cosmopolitans

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  265 Ratings  ·  50 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 April 21st 2016 by THE FEMINIST PRESS (first published March 15th 2016)
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Apr 19, 2016 Samantha 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
Jun 14, 2016 M. 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
Feb 19, 2016 Macartney 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.
Eric Piotrowski
Mar 14, 2016 Eric Piotrowski 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
May 28, 2015 Cass rated it it was amazing
Brilliant and beautiful. A masterwork.
Nana 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 Sassafras Lowrey 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 lin rated it really liked it
"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."
Apr 01, 2016 Allison 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
Dec 13, 2016 Kris rated it it was amazing
Loved this tale. I could picture it on the stage. She tied up all the loose ends.
Jun 15, 2016 Sara 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 Kim 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 Rachel 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 Bmluby 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.
Sue Russell
Mar 09, 2016 Sue Russell 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.
Kevin Coleman
Apr 28, 2016 Kevin Coleman rated it really liked it
I love the themes that Schulman explores in this book--shunning, queer family-making, telling the truth, and accountability. Sometimes I felt like the historical detail was tacked on, and it's maybe a touch too long, but a worthwhile read overall.
Ellen Simpson
Mar 25, 2016 Ellen Simpson 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 Melody DeMeritt 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!
Sarah Townsend
Apr 14, 2016 Sarah Townsend 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.
Jan 10, 2016 Véronique 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.
Jul 09, 2016 Jaralee 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.
Jun 02, 2016 Katrina 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.
Mar 13, 2016 Luann rated it really liked it
And be sure to read "A Note On Style" at the end.
Nov 27, 2016 J. 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
Joan Gelfand
Nov 20, 2016 Joan Gelfand rated it really liked it
An interesting portrayal of a quiet woman who learns how to go from a mouse like existence to being a 'player.' interesting historical details on NYC in the 50's , African American history, gay history at the time and the theater. politically compelling.

While the language was not particularly inspiring the ideas were well presented and I applaud Schulman for portraying how one person discovers how following the path of TRUTH is not necessarily the path to success.

Mar 03, 2017 Kathy 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.
Jan 10, 2017 Andrew rated it really liked it
"That was the lesson of the void. If nothing matters, every obstacle may have a flaw that, if exploited, can bring you to your goal. Especially if that goal is simply to get there."
Jimmy R
Mar 06, 2017 Jimmy R 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
Jan 17, 2017 Patricia rated it liked it
The somewhat high ratings of this book are perplexing to me. Perhaps my disinterest in the story and characters stems from my not having read Balzac's classic Cousin Bette as this novel is a modern retelling of Balzac's book. The writing seemed stilted and hence the story was jerky in cadence rather than flowing. Schulman is a playwrite and the novel read more like a play than a book.
I liked the character Earl Coleman, a black gay man who wants to be an actor, but to make ends meet works in the
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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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