book review: Something Red

Title: Something Red
Author: Jennifer Gilmore
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Scribner (March 30, 2010)
Category: contemporary fiction
Rating: A-

Something Red occurs in 1979– at the end of a decade, the waning of the Cold War and the beginning of the “me” generation. Carter is President, there’s the Iranian hostage crisis, a grain embargo to the USSR and the summer Olympics boycott. It’s the end of a decade and that’s stirring things up for the Goldstein family, a comfortable suburban Maryland Jewish family. While not an integral asset to government machinations, both parents have enough government ties to make their DC lives intriguing. Dennis works in agriculture and travels to the USSR often. Sharon is a caterer for many power players. Eldest child and star athlete Benjamin heads off to Babson College. Sixteen-year-old Vanessa completely bucks the system as she starves herself to feel thin enough to belong.

Each family member faces some sort of identity crisis. Dennis appeases his socialist father and struggles to please his demanding, perfectionist mother. While Sharon adores her catering business, she’s feeling empty and garners support from a new-agey spiritual group. Benjamin expects to immerse himself in a new revolution of thinkers and doers where he’ll take part in some grand social experiment but ends up only experimenting with drugs, sex and following the Grateful Dead and his new girlfriend. By all outward appearances Vanessa seems like many other teens trying to carve her own identity amidst a crowd of followers. She’s a vegetarian and dates a skateboarder in a punk band.

Sometimes I’d agree and other times I’d cringe at the behaviors or attitudes of one of the Goldsteins. I hardly wanted to put this book down as is transports the reader to a past, in retrospect, where: we were less fearful; crises were more manageable; and the world was much more black and white. Something Red deftly captures the wavering activism in teenagers. Do I do what is right or do I do what will make me cool and popular? Author Jennifer Gilmore instills equal parts cheerfulness and solemnity throughout this meditative second novel. Something Red is a superb reflection on the connection between external events and our psyches.

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