Something Red by Jennifer Gilmore

Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

Something Red
320 pages; Scribner
The Goldsteins may look like your typical Carter-era suburban D.C. couple saddled with familiar bourgeois problems: rebellious children, troublesome in-laws, infidelity, and general middle-aged angst. But don't be deceived—as the Goldsteins are—by appearances. Jennifer Gilmore's Something Red is ambitious and provocative, more Molotov cocktail than standard-issue domestic drama, raising profound questions about loyalty, independence, love of family and of country. Set in 1979 and '80, when hostage-taking, grain embargoes, and Olympic boycotting have displaced '60s-style idealism, the story centers on one disillusioned optimist, Dennis Goldstein, who now makes trade deals in Russia for the Department of Agriculture. Dennis may still listen to folk music, but he's also not above chatting occasionally with the CIA; he's forever "haunted by the man he might have been." His wife, Sharon, "embarrassed" that she never acted on her own liberal ideals, cooks obsessively and looks for guidance in an EST-like empowerment group. Son Ben finds his passion in drugs and the Grateful Dead, while slam-dancing daughter Vanessa tries to deny herself all sensual pleasure. Gilmore depicts the sometimes paranoid, sometimes exhilarating zeitgeist of the era in every evocative detail of food and music, but even more astonishing is the uncanny way she captures family in all its messy complexity. Looking at her Russian doll collection, Vanessa wonders whether they "constituted one doll or if they were really 12 different dolls, with separate selves and souls." As intimate secrets meet national events and the comic tragedy unfolds, Dennis faces an inevitable truth—that whatever we feel about our parents' achievements or failures, "we are all living down or living up to a legacy."
— Liza Nelson