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."
What had been a fairly straightforward historical novel becomes a comedy of manners, a morality play, a musical-in-waiting, an instructional film about the emergent advertising industry, an investigation of the romance of the city, and a cautionary tale. Every scene is meticulously choreographed, overwrought in its use of direct address, just like the plays that Bette and Earl are constantly discussing ... The Cosmopolitans shimmers where it departs from the conventions of realism to indict not just structural homophobia, racism and misogyny but also the structures of writing that further these societal ills. Schulman accomplishes all this with deadpan humor and startling precision.
Over the course of the novel, Bette proves to be an insightful and surprising narrator, but there is perhaps no more enduring character in all of Schulman’s writing than New York City: it is her muse, her moral compass, and her love interest, much as it is for Bette ... The novel is a paean to their neighborly love, which stretches across hallways and demographic distances, and which is earned, as opposed to obligated, the way familial love is ... It would be easy to enjoy The Cosmopolitans even if you had never heard the name Sarah Schulman before. But the book rests upon a powerful foundation.
In some ways The Cosmopolitans is a straightforward period piece—'book-club gold,' as its blurb proclaims—featuring Paul Robeson and huge television sets, and male homosexuality just beginning to edge from the closet in the bohemian enclaves downtown. But it’s also an extraordinarily radical and risky (and not always successful) experiment that seizes on what you thought you knew about the period—the racism, the birth of television, the influence of Freud, the deep ban on any consideration of lesbianism, even as an idea—only to chop it up and reassemble it in jarringly unexpected shapes.