Something Red Paperback – Mar 10 2011
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"Rich and entertaining." -Vanity Fair --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
JENNIFER GILMORE's first novel, Golden Country, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2006 and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She currently teaches at Eugene Lang College, the New School for Liberal Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Jewish themes, EST & the personal growth movement, an affair, the Grateful Dead, acid trips, and the Olympics boycott provide the backdrop as the plot moves semi-flashback style through the Goldsteins' past. But we never get to really know the characters in depth nor feel their pain. Throughout the novel I kept waiting for the thread that would pull everything together, to help me understand why I should care about these characters and the events. Somehow the style did not work for me, the writing did not merit the time and energy investment.
So at the end of the book, I wonder what's the point? There were a lot of opportunities to bring the story together, but I don't feel I just know enough or care enough about this family to think twice about the book I have read. There certainly are reminiscences of Carter, the hostage crisis, the embargo, The Dead, and the tenor of the times that bring back a few memories, but in the end, so what? Does all that a good novel make?
Jennifer Gilmore's Something Red explores the ways in which relationships and attitudes about family, god, love and country diverged and clashed in this time of disillusionment and cultural drift. The author's eye and ear (and, it seems safe to assume, memory) for period detail is terrific; most striking, though, is her attention to another of the senses, as food assumes a central significance in the novel.
The main characters are often defined and separated by what they eat (or don't), and of no small importance is the fact that central figure Sharon Goldstein is a caterer to the power classes of Washington, D.C.; Sharon's 16 year-old daughter, Vanessa, has recently stopped eating meat and drinking alcohol; her son, Ben, newly departed for Brandeis University, is discovering his Jewish roots and becomes involved in a campus protest centered on the introduction of pork and other non-kosher foods to campus dining halls; and the novel itself opens with a family dinner party Sharon hosts as a send-off for Ben, during which the political and religious fault lines running between and within those assembled begin to surface. Gilmore's depiction of a dinner table conversation veering toward disaster is note-perfect and skillfully sets the stage for conflicts to come.
It may be hard to believe that the 1979 U.S. embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union can become, in 2010, the stuff of genuine narrative tension. Here, though, it does, as Sharon's husband Dennis, an official in President Carter's Department of Agriculture, finds himself suddenly facing the prospect of no longer making regular visits to Moscow to arrange grain deals; he's come to love the city and dreads reassignment to Latin America or Asia, places for which he feels no affinity.
Tensions and estrangements small and large are the focus of this engaging, surprising novel. In a truly challenging and soul-trying time, Jennifer Gilmore's very human and sympathetic characters seek their ways forward, trying to find selves and roles they can live with; the author's empathy and imagination ensure that their efforts, which yield varying results, provide the reward of satisfying narrative and felt emotional truth.
This is the kind of book I normally would like. So why didn't I? First, "Something Red" shares a problem with a lot of literary novels: None of its main characters are remotely likeable. In fact, based on the inner monologues through which we get to know them, they're all rather vile. This isn't because any of them has done anything especially horrible or is even much more selfish or self-centered than the average person. There's just something repellent about their voices. These are the kind of characters at whom other authors have poked gentle (or not-so-gentle) fun (I'm thinking of Cyra McFadden's "The Serial" and David Lodge's academic satires). But there's no sense of satire, and precious little humor, in "Something Red." We see the characters floundering, but we (or at least I) don't like them enough to care.
Second, the sense of period is just off. It's hard to put my finger on how. But I remember those years well--I'm the same age as the character Ben--and, despite multiple, accurate references to the culture and politics of the period, I never believed this story was happening in the end of the '70s. Maybe it's the speech patterns--at one point, one college student tells another to "chill," an expression I never heard before the mid-'80s. Or maybe it's the music; there's lots of obscure punk and Grateful Dead, but the Cars and the Captain and Tenille--two bands that were inescapable at the time--are strangely absent. Maybe it's the food: Sharon's attitudes are a little too Alice Waters for 1980; and aren't cherries jubilee kind of Kennedy-era for 1979? The author was born in 1970, and she obviously did a tremendous amount of research for the book. But some point, the multitudinous period details began to seem excessive and heavy-handed. I found myself wishing that she'd just set the book a little later, in a time period that she herself remembered better, so she wouldn't have had to put so much obvious effort into painting a period picture.
In sum: There's a lot of story here, and some of it's pretty good. But ultimately, "Something Red" never quite comes together, either as a plot-driven novel or as a character study.
It's a heady mix that captures the drug and consciousness raising ethos of the era with a look back to the `50s when the Rosenbergs were executed for spying, a lesson Dennis' mother didn't seem to learn.
The characters are continually reminiscing about past events, not always the `50s, it might be Sharon's memories of her affair with a man she met in her behavioral cult or Vanessa thinking about her relationship with her boyfriend. Benji falls in love with Rebecca at Brandeis and becomes a Dead Head, smoking pot and eating acid like there's no tomorrow. He also leads a student demonstration against the Olympic boycott, which brings a little more history into the story.
The Jewish element of the story concerns the Russian roots of Jewish Americans from the period, who reminisce about the Rosenbergs while some of them continue to spy for their country, disrupting the lives of their children and grandchildren, who are beset by their own identity crises in contemporary America.