By Susan Shreve
Saturday, May 15, 2010; C03
By Jennifer Gilmore
Scribner. 306 pp. $25
"Something Red," Jennifer Gilmore's second novel (after "Golden Country"), chronicles in striking detail seven months in the lives of the Goldsteins, former activists and '60s optimists whose diminished dreams reflect the disillusionment and ennui at the end of the Carter administration. The book begins in late summer, 1979, when the Goldstein family members have come together for dinner in the back yard of their Chevy Chase house to see Ben, their sex-crazed, druggy, athletic son, off to Brandeis. In this wonderfully funny and compelling story of a splintering suburban family, Gilmore has written an intimate social history of three generations of American Jews.
What the Goldsteins -- Sharon, the mother, and Dennis, the father -- long to recover is a sense of purpose and idealism, a belief in the value of the individual, which they had in their youth before Watergate and the failure in Vietnam, the loss of trust in government and in one another. The Goldstein family, like so many others of the time, is in crisis.
The story moves seamlessly from one relative to the next, from memory to memory, flashback to flashback, and always in the background is the political climate of the present: the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis and the grain embargo, which affects Dennis's work at the Department of Agriculture. And shadowing their lives is the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (Dennis grew up in the neighborhood where Ethel's mother lived, where the little boys were sent when their parents went to prison). Subtly, this is also a story about espionage, from which the title comes: I spy with my little eye . . . something red.
In the months that follow Ben's departure, Sharon, feeling trapped in a fading marriage, disappointed in a life that has lost the excitement of youthful protest, throws herself into her catering business for Democratic fundraisers and joins a self-actualizing program called LEAP!, where she meets and has an affair with a homeless ex-hippie. She is a "get it done" woman, though in the process of rebuilding her life, she's blind to her daughter Vanessa's bulimia and her husband's vulnerability.
But Sharon provides the food, both actual and spiritual, for making things happen. In fact, there's a lot about food in the Goldsteins' story, whether it's the grain embargo or grandmother's dreadful meringue cookies or Sharon's artistry as a caterer or Vanessa's habit of gorging herself and then throwing up. In perhaps the most memorable scene, Sharon is flambéing cherries at a catering job and sets herself on fire when she sees Vanessa, a fill-in waitress at the party, crouched in the bushes stuffing her mouth with lamb and potatoes.
Vanessa is infuriating -- self-indulgent, joyless but also the most honest and heartbreaking of the Goldsteins with her empty sexual encounters, her desperation and her hopelessness. As the book progresses, she develops mettle, and the reader gets a sense that she's not as lost as she seems, nor as disconnected.
The nuclear family comes together without actually being together in the spring, for Parents' Day at Brandeis. Ben, who never wanted his parents to visit, is busy with demonstrations against the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Sharon and Dennis find themselves alone for the evening, dinner plans aborted while their children go to an LSD party.
A series of surprising developments carries the story to a disturbing conclusion. Late in the book, Sharon thinks: "They had always believed that what they would pass down to their children was not the good fortune their parents had fought for and handed them readily, but the intangible splendor of hope and dreaming."
"Something Red" is an ambitious novel, though too exhaustive in detail and with an excess of back story that occasionally detracts from the characters. But that is a minor flaw in a warm, intelligent story about the dangers to a family as it tries to hold together in a dark political time.
Shreve's latest novel is "A Student of Living Things."