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We’ve gone through the worst war the world has ever known. One of the ways to ensure this never happens again is to learn, to head off problems before they enlarge. No, you don’t want to be a diplomat. But Juts, you will become a citizen.
–Rita Mae Brown
Cakewalk, Brown’s newest novel, takes on the monumental task of portraying a town caught in the aftermath of war. Whether it’s the men who fought or the women affected by the loss of their boys, the town of Runnymede is characterized in this novel with a heightened sense of patriotism. Add to that the interpersonal dynamics of its citizens (everything from gender roles to class systems to romance), and the book is a dynamic representation of pre-Prohibition, post-WWI East Coast.
The book boasts no central protagonist, but Celeste Chalfonte is as close to one as can be. A member of the Runnymede upper crust, she is a woman not only of means, but of exquisite education and generosity. She balances an active social life, a full house (including a room she still keeps for a brother lost in the war), a longtime lover (Ramelle, a woman who is referenced but never seen in the book, as she marries Celeste’s brother Curtis in order to have children), and a burgeoning new love. Through the life of Celeste and her friends, the reader comes to appreciate the multifaceted richness of small-town life in the early twentieth century.
The book isn’t a dry history narrative—Brown keeps us anchored in the interpersonal through the stories of the characters, who range in personality, age, and status. There is the high-spirited Juts, a fifteen-year-old who is eager to drop out of school and get to work. Juts’ sister Louise is kind and beautiful, and runs the fashion department at the local department store. And there are the obligatory town gold diggers—a family of wronged women constantly seeking revenge.
Like many of her other books, Brown’s Cakewalk enthralls while educating, giving the reader the glimpse into lives little talked about.
By Rita Mae Brown
Hardcover, 9780553392678, 320 pp.