‘Something Red’ lacks color

The book about a troubled family in the early 1980s has a generic quality that makes characters hard to care about.

something red 311 (photo credit: (Seattle Times/MCT))
something red 311
(photo credit: (Seattle Times/MCT))
It’s more fun to talk about Jennifer Gilmore’s new novel, Something Red, than it is to actually read it. The story of a troubled family at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the ’80s in Washington, DC, it tries to encompass all the trends of that era and, along the way, loses sight of the emotional reality of its characters.
Although, intermittently, they seem like real people, there is a generic quality to them that makes them hard to care about.
What’s enjoyable about it is, if you’re a certain age (and, by chance, I am precisely that age) it will take you back to a specific time in your life that you probably haven’t started thinking of as a bygone historical era – but it is.
One criticism leveled at mystery writers is that they sacrifice character to plot, although in this novel the author sacrifices her characters to ideas. The trouble starts early on, in a dinner featuring three generations of the Goldstein family. The scene shifts jarringly among the points of view of various family members, but concentrates on Sharon and Dennis Goldstein and their children, Ben and Vanessa.
Sharon is a vaguely discontented caterer, who will soon be drawn into a cultish self-actualization group and a casual affair with a guitar-playing stranger, to ease the feeling that her life has not lived up to the promises of late ’60s freedom. She isn’t close to her status-obsessed mother and B-movie producer father, who are visiting from Los Angeles.
Dennis is a functionary at the Department of Agriculture who visits the USSR regularly and feels that his small part in ameliorating relations between the two superpowers is his way of living up to the promises of late ’60s social activism and freedom. His father, Sigmund, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, is far more concerned about changing society than Dennis, although his father seems to talk big and do relatively little. His mother, Tatiana, supports his father but doesn’t seem proud enough of her son.
Ben and Vanessa have their own problems, of course. Ben, an athlete in high school whose main extracurricular activity was bedding cheerleaders, is about to go to Brandeis. There, he suddenly becomes serious about social activism after he falls in love with a politically active young woman. Yearning to make a difference, he can’t think of any cause to throw himself into other than protesting president Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Vanessa has trouble with her sexuality and descends into bulimia to keep herself attractive. She has sex but doesn’t care or feel much about it, and dabbles in drugs and the punk scene.
This should be the setup of the novel, but it’s basically the whole book. The characters are symbols first, and people a distant second. It’s filled with passages like this one, from Sharon’s thoughts: “Out of the dizzy froth of the malt shop of her college years, the fifties closing around her, was the notion that she would break free. She’d had her chance, she thought, and she had not totally blown it. There had once been a war she had stood up against. Really she was a child of war; she’d been born just before the bombs had started dropping in Europe; she had come of age during Korea; her young adulthood was formed by Vietnam.”
Do people actually think like this? It seems more like a Time magazine staff writer working on a profile than the inner musings of an actual person. The book is littered with passages like this, and they don’t become more compelling as it wears on. Here’s another one, as Dennis thinks about his impatience with Sharon’s cultish selfhelp group: “He did not want to see or hear any more of that cult crap, this constant me me me. It was the start of a brand new decade! We were not going to think as much about ourselves as we had been.”
Eventually, the book digs around for some plot, and comes up with a foreshadowed but unconvincing deus ex machina .
The novel made me long for a book by Tom Wolfe about this era, because he blends social, political and economic trends with the personal like no one else, and does so with wit and style. Sadly,