Something Red by Jennifer Gilmore

I grabbed this book primarily because it was set in 1979/1980 during the cold war and some of my teenage years. I thought it would be interesting to look back through the long lens of time and see what what I think. This book, based on reviews, is either one you love or one you hate. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. I liked this book a lot. I thought the subject matter was interesting, I thought the story was pretty good and I thought the twist at the end was good, although a little convoluted.

The story is set in Washington D.C. during the Carter administration. The hostage crisis is on, the energy crisis is on, the Olympic boycott is on and the farming crisis is precipitated by the wheat boycott. The Cold War is in full effect. Fear of communism and socialism is high as well as fear of nuclear war. During this same time period, the United States was only 5 years removed from Vietnam and two or three years removed from Watergate and Nixon’s resignation so faith and belief and trust from the American people towards their government was low. The author tries to get all these broad strokes in while also setting the scene of discussion within the Jewish community. Not being Jewish, I can’t say I am fully informed but the general idea was that the community was very divided in its opinions about communism, capitalism and socialism.

The father in the story, Dennis, is an American with Russian Jewish parents. He works as a mid level government boffin at the USDA. His primary concerns throughout the story are based around the boycott and how this affects his job. In addition, the USDA has suspended all trade with Moscow and Dennis is no longer traveling for work. He is preoccupied with the fact that he may lose his job and this was a valid concern at that time. His wife, Sharon, is a middle aged woman who has a catering business with a friend. She grew up in the comparative wealth of the 50’s and she and Dennis were too old for the hippie movement of the 60’s having started a family in the early 60’s. For women like Sharon, this was a time when they were catching up with the women’s liberation movement and personal growth movements. Sharon has done both and inn addition, she has had a brief affair. She has not found her “thing” yet and by the end of the book, she has only inched closer but there is personal growth.

The two children are Ben and Vanessa. Ben is a freshman at Brandeis University. He is emerging and we really only see him as freshman. It is simply a snapshot. We know that as a high schooler he was a jock and now he is trying on being a hippie. He is discouraged because he knows he missed the heyday of protest movements. In fact, he has a professor who spends the year extolling the virtues of the yppies from Brandeis and how they changed the world while at the same time, disparaging the incoming freshman. He constantly reminds them that they missed the bus and that their concerns are somehow ‘less than.” The children of Aquarius have been very unforgiving to the generation that followed them. It was difficult to be a part of the post Boomer world.

Vanessa is a high school junior. She is trying on punk and has an eating disorder. Her character more than any other is the least clearly defined. She is going through what all teenagers of the time go through – sex, drugs, music, fashion and where they fir in the family structure as well as societies structure. She resents her parents but loves them. She resents her brother for leaving her with their parents but those changes are inevitable. Life was very unsure for many during those years. Reagan and the new prosperity hadn’t yet happened and the country was depressed as well as the people in it.

The story is told from the point of view of these four. I have seen criticism saying that it was confusing but I had no trouble following it. This isn’t a fast paced, thrill a minute novel. It is slow and lumbering like a Russian Bear. It is very reflective of the time and it may be hard for those born in the late 1980’s and beyond to relate at all to this period. We have only started looking at the early to late 60’s in cultural studies now. This is still a relatively untapped historical period. There is a good twist at the end which was worth the wait. I recommend this book and can say that I enjoyed it.

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