Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Something Red by Jennifer Gilmore
This book is a tremendous feat. I can only imagine how much research was required to accurately portray various historical and cultural details from the late 1970s. It is a time period I never fully examined before. Even as an American history major (who focused on modern America), I barely made it beyond 1972. But this book -- with its lyrical language and deeply developed characters-captures the zeitgeist of the time period. And so I learned some history while languishing inside an engaging story filled with such artful description.
The book focuses in on the disparate experiences of one nuclear family living in the suburbs of Washington DC, while also exploring the history that shaped each member of their extended family and the tenor of the time periods that shaped each individual. In shifting narration, we learn about the lives of Dennis, the father who works for the Department of Agriculture, Sharon, the mother who is also a caterer for all of Washington's major dinner parties, Benji the son who leaves behind his jock image and embraces rebellion and a hippy lifestyle while a student at Brandeis, and Vanessa, the teenage daughter who embraces punk, while struggling with an eating disorder. This book has everything: spy stories, radicalism, self-actualization group, infidelity, sexual discovery, drugs, family drama and major historical moments.
Sharon looks for meaning as she ferries along in a world changed by the absence of her son (who is away at college). Dennis begins to question his long held belief that it is possible to challenge the status quo from inside the government. Benji laments the fact that he is at Brandeis ten years too late, skips class to attend Grateful Dead concerts and follows the lead of his activist and voluptuous girlfriend. He finds passion in a class titled "American Protest!" which studies his own grandfather's actions, and eventually organizes a protest against the 1980 Olympics boycott. Vanessa, sullen and angsty, falls in love with the hearty sounds of punk and experiments sexually. She is constantly in need of more -- more attention and more food (which she later throws up).
Gilmore's style and craft are flawless, her attention to detail astounding. As someone who lives in DC I was fascinated by Gilmore's depictions of DC in the late 1970s/early 1980s. So much of the depictions remain true even if suburban teenagers no longer experiment in the same form. As someone obsessed with family history, I love the way Gilmore used history as a lens to examine the roots and ideology of one family. In truth this book was perfect for me as it combined many of my deepest interests: american history, family history, and oral history.