"Something Red" is the story of the Goldstein family--dad Dennis, mom Sharon, son Ben (later "Benji"), and daughter Vanessa--during 1979 and 1980. The story begins in August 1979, right before Ben leaves for college, and is told in alternating points of view over the winter and into the spring. Dennis, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is worried about the effect Jimmy Carter's grain embargo will have on Russia and on his own career. Sixteen-year-old Vanessa, who a year ago was a beer-swilling, pot-smoking party girl, has dropped her old friends for a new boyfriend, punk rock, and a "straight-edge" lifestyle of apparent self-denial that masks a serious eating disorder. Sharon, food-loving co-owner of a catering company, has joined an EST-like self-actualization program called LEAP. And Ben reinvents himself the first week he gets to college, changing from a superjock who screws every girl in sight to an acid-dropping Deadhead who faithfully attends every protest with his ubercommitted girlfriend. Supporting characters are the grandparents -- Sharon's parents, Helen and Herbert, who joyfully left New York for Los Angeles and cheered when Ethel Rosenberg was electrocuted, and Dennis's left-leaning parents, Sigmund and Tatti, who cling to their Lower East Side apartment and their Socialist political convictions.
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.