cover image Milk Fever

Milk Fever

Lissa M. Cowan. Demeter Press (Brunswick Books, North American dist.), $19.95 tr

On the eve of the French Revolution, a well-educated wet nurse named Armande Vivant disappears, and the peasant girl she and her father adopted and educated resolves to find her because she believes Armande's "extraordinary" milk has the power not only to nourish babies, but also to educate and transform the people of France. Snooping for clues among private papers, listening to predictions from children nursed by Armande%E2%80%94"The flames of revolt are catching, little by little"%E2%80%94and posing as the wife of a mysterious stranger, Celeste Vivant examines questions about tensions between motherhood and scholarship, originality and plagiarism, and reason and superstition as she searches for her beloved mentor. Cowan's debut novel invokes powerful metaphors about devouring ideas, reading people, and cherishing books as if they were human, yet the story suffers from inconsistencies and abrupt transitions, a reliance on cliche, and a tendency for characters to explain backstory or facts about nursing for the benefit of the reader rather than for the characters they're talking to. Celeste idolizes Armande, but her behavior at times contradicts her assertions of loyalty and thus undermines her devotion to Armande's teaching about wisdom, truth, and service to others. (Oct.)