A U.S. family and the Cold War

Something Red, by Jennifer Gilmore (Scribner, $25.00), provides a high-definition look at an era, a geographic location and a family. The novel is the story of the Goldstein family of Washington D.C., but it’s also the story of a largely under-chronicled historical era of transition: that period of ambiguity during the late 1970s and early 1980s in which the United States and Russia were locked in a fruitless standoff of paralysis and mistrust. Through narrative, Gilmore forges an allegory of a country and a family locked in a state of checkmate.

Everyone in the Goldstein family is in transition. Sharon Goldstein, family matriarch, caterer to the smart Washington dinner set, is coming to terms with her age and her son’s imminent departure for college. She plays with fire and gets burned, literally as well as metaphorically: She’s not caught when she’s having an affair, but does pay for her indiscretion when a dessert flambe goes horribly awry at a party. Vanessa, her daughter, struggles through loving and hating both food and herself. She lives in fear of her changing body: “She had this strange desire to be experiencing anything before now, for her body to be made small again, before it had curved and ballooned, grown dangerous and disappointing.” Sharon’s son Ben redubs himself “Benji” during his freshman year at Brandeis, in order to distinguish himself from his younger self. He is desperately searching for an identity and purpose beyond his high school jock persona, and hopes to discover it in political and social protest. In his quest for self-definition he clings to Rachel, a selfassured and zaftig campus activist.

Dennis Goldstein, paterfamilias, stands apart from this clan. The son of Russian Jews, Dennis works for the Department of Agriculture in the “Foreign Ag service,” and finds himself caught up in embargo politics and conflicts with the Soviets in a way that ends much worse than he’d ever expected. His work life occupies most of his time, but at the end of the book, he and Sharon sneak away together from “Family Weekend” at Brandeis for what turns out to be a lovers’ tryst. At the core of the cold war of familial conflict, Gilmore locates a heartbeat in Sharon’s epiphany when the straying wife finds she still lusts after her husband: “Children… they bring you closer, yes, but they also separate you. They bring your bodies together, then they insist on their separation.” This struggle, between the roles people are forced to play by their circumstance and the essence of who they are and want to become, is at the center of the book’s keenly felt geopolitical and emotional dilemmas.

In one scene, Vanessa recalls the first time her brother played her Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”: “She’d first heard the song at camp, and the time Ben had played it for her had both ignited her memory of summer campfires — the stillness of the lake the campers learned to canoe on by day, the shadows of the evergreens rising along more distant shores — and seized her heart with what she did not yet know she would always search for in music: brokenness. The visceral feeling of ruin. In all its many guises.”

That visceral feeling of ruin, and its attendant portent of nostalgia, is what Gilmore taps exquisitely in this book. Something Red is the depiction of a world teetering, with all the vertiginous fears that go with it.

Jordana Horn is the New York correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and is at work on her first novel.