Margot: A Novel
“Hats were to be kept on at lunch, but not worn in the evening. Nothing that sparkled before sunset. No white shoes after Labor Day. A drink was permitted when the sun was over the yardarm at noon . . . The butler passed the meat platter, the maids passed the vegetables.”
These are among the many rules that govern life for Margot Thornsen, growing up in postwar New York City as part of the 1 percent. She never quite fits in—too tall, too unathletic, too enthralled by science—although she desperately wants to please her demanding mother and be liked by the other rich kids.
Margot’s narrow world opens up when she enrolls at Radcliffe, just as the Sixties explode and all the old rules crumble. Drugs, antiwar protests, feminism, the Pill, and the newly discovered intricacies of DNA bombard her.
“Women have been brought up to be polite, we’ve got no defense,” one Radcliffe friend explains. “Girls aged eighteen, nineteen, twenty are showing up in psych wards with no prior history of mental illness, mute, tearing out clumps of their hair . . . exhibiting some of the same symptoms as the boys coming back from ’Nam.”
The keyhole views are the best parts of this novel, whether they peek into the curtained rooms of Margot’s family’s Long Island estate or into the naïve mindset of Americans before the horrors of the Vietnam War hit their television screens.
Margot’s love of science is also portrayed with depth and passion. As she studies DNA, she muses on the ramifications as well as the shape: “Wound in its spirals was the history of a man and mankind, the memory of meteor showers and ice ages, bacterial infections and prehistoric wolf attacks.”
Unfortunately, the novel’s intriguing context is marred by a cast that is one cliché after another, starting with the eponymous Margot: the misfit bookish heroine. The tyrannical patriarch. The rebellious daughter who marries out of her class. The charming bad boy. The benignly drunk and mostly absent father. The sexy, hippie professor. Worst of all is Margot’s comic-book villain of a mother, Peggy, a ridiculous combination of bitterness, ambition, rigidity, and plain old nastiness.
But the book must be read to the end, which brings a wonderful twist that shakes the reader’s assumptions the way life shakes up Margot.