Something Red

( 4 )


In Washington, D.C., life inside the Goldstein home is as tumultuous as the swiftly changing times. In 1979, the Cold War is waning and the age of protest has come and gone, leaving a once radical family to face a new set of challenges. Something Red is a masterly novel that unfurls with suspense, humor, and insight.

Dennis, whose government job often takes him to Moscow, struggles both to succeed in a career he doesn’t quite believe in and to live up to his father’s leftist ...

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Something Red: A Novel

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In Washington, D.C., life inside the Goldstein home is as tumultuous as the swiftly changing times. In 1979, the Cold War is waning and the age of protest has come and gone, leaving a once radical family to face a new set of challenges. Something Red is a masterly novel that unfurls with suspense, humor, and insight.

Dennis, whose government job often takes him to Moscow, struggles both to succeed in a career he doesn’t quite believe in and to live up to his father’s leftist legacy. Sharon, a caterer for the Washington elite, joins a cultlike group in search of the fulfillment she once felt. Happy-go-lucky Benjamin is heading off to college, there to experience an awakening of social conscience, and sixteen-year-old Vanessa finds a cure for alienation in D.C.’s hardcore music scene. As each of them follows separate trajectories of personal protest and compromise along the edge of a new decade, radical traditions long dormant in their family awaken once again, with shocking, far-reaching results.

A poignant story of husbands and wives, parents and children, activists and spies,

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Editorial Reviews

Susann Cokal
…sharp and contemplative…Gilmore glides smoothly from one perspective to another, giving equal and anxious weight to each, as she chronicles a few months in the lives of a family that wishes itself to be deeper both experientially and politically…Gilmore has pulled off a remarkable feat: not of fusing the personal and the political but of showing why they're so difficult to reconcile.
—The New York Times
Susan Shreve
In this wonderfully funny and compelling story of a splintering suburban family, Gilmore has written an intimate social history of three generations of American Jews…Something Red is an ambitious novel…a warm, intelligent story about the dangers to a family as it tries to hold together in a dark political time.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Gilmore's second novel (after Golden Country) takes an extended documentary look at divided loyalties within a suburban Washington, D.C., family caught in the cultural and political mayhem of late-1970s America. With the country seized by an energy crisis, a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provoking an American wheat embargo, and a boycott against the Winter Olympics, Dennis Goldstein's job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture is imperiled, as is the business of his New Agey caterer wife, Sharon. Meanwhile, son Benjamin sets off to college, eager to emulate the activism of his grandparents' 1930s generation, and humorless 16-year-old daughter Vanessa dives into punk rock and bulimia. Gilmore excavates every thought process from each: Sharon recognizes that “her faith in the power to make changes in the world felt like a fluid that had been drained from her.” Dennis, on the other hand, is the son of Russian Jewish émigrés for whom the deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg proved the defining, shameful moment of their generation, and he becomes unwittingly tangled in his mother's Old World perfidy. Gilmore relentlessly chronicles these hapless characters' collective flight from numbness with verve. (Apr.)
Library Journal
World and family politics at the end of the Cold War provide the backdrop of Gilmore's second novel (after Golden Country). When their oldest child, Ben, leaves for college, Dennis and Sharon Goldstein—onetime young idealists who became a bureaucrat and a society caterer, respectively—begin to discover their family's secrets. Not only is Sharon having an affair but daughter Vanessa is anorexic. Indeed, it's soon evident that the family secrets transcend generations. The story is told in chapters from the point of view of each family member, detailing Dennis's travel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and recollections of when his children were young, Sharon's extramarital affair and her relationship with Vanessa, Ben's college experimentation and activism, and Vanessa's high school relationships and eating disorder. VERDICT Readers nostalgic for the early 1980s in America will find evocative references to pop culture, music, and the politics of the time. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/09.]—Amy Ford, St. Mary's Cty. Lib., Lexington Park, MD
Kirkus Reviews
A Jewish family struggles with the politics of desire during the tumultuous Reagan '80s. Gilmore follows up her well-crafted debut (Golden Country, 2006) with the tale of a Jewish family, the Goldsteins, attempting to live up to those who have come before them. The most esoteric character is the mother, Sharon, who is at an emotional crossroads after settling down and having children instead of embracing the spirit of the '60s. She looks for solace in the bed of a banker-turned-activist after descending into a cultish support group. "If she could, she'd return to the time when she and Dennis were first married, when the Jews and the blacks sat together, before Selma, before Kennedy was shot, before Vietnam," Gilmore writes. Her husband Dennis is a midlevel Washington bureaucrat whose extended trips to Moscow are derailed by the Iranian hostage crisis. Their son Ben becomes embroiled in the heady politics that inflame college students as he starts his first year at Brandeis University. Their daughter Vanessa, meanwhile, throws herself headlong into anarchist passions when she discovers the burgeoning D.C. punk-rock scene and her blooming sexuality. Each member of the clan compares their own lives to that of the parents of Sharon and Dennis, first-generation immigrants whose experiences with communism and memories of the Rosenberg trials color all the other plots. As in her debut, Gilmore does an admirable job of weaving real-life history into the lives of her characters. But even as resolutions are made and secrets are revealed, the parts often threaten to swallow the whole. A very adult, mildly flawed domestic drama.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547549422
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/10/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,451,471
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

JENNIFER GILMORE's first novel, Golden Country, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2006 and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She currently teaches at Eugene Lang College, the New School for Liberal Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt


Not Everyone Carried Marbles

August 25, 1979

 It was hot as hell and Sharon Goldstein knew everyone had to be
positively sweltering out back. Her mother was especially intolerant
of humidity and boastful that Los Angeles, the paradise that she and
her husband had been wrested away from to come here, to Washington,
did not make its inhabitants bear such humiliating conditions. ( What
about earthquakes, Nana? Vanessa had said yesterday, but Helen had
waved her away.) It was only six o’clock and already the cicadas were
 As Sharon made her way around the kitchen, she pictured each one
piling paper-thin sheets of prosciutto (well, not her father, whose newly
kosher regime she refused to acknowledge) on melon wedges, and
spreading runny Brie on the baguette she’d baked yesterday. Imagining
her family eating in the yard bordered by the lit tiki lights pleased her.
More, she had to admit, than actually sitting there with them.
 The neighborhood sounds of skateboards scraping asphalt and
kids playing kick-the-can drifted in through the open doors, and she
could see the Farrell girls across the street waving their thin arms in
the air so the gnats would go to the highest point, far away from their
tanned, freckled faces. As Sharon diced cucumbers and apples for
her gazpacho—what made hers special was a garnish of peeled green
apples and long slivers of tender basil—she wondered if her idea of an
outdoor dinner had been misguided.
 “To see Ben off!” she’d told Dennis last month. They’d been lying
in bed watching President Carter talk about the energy crisis, and she’d
opened her night-table drawer, taken out an emery board, and begun
to saw at her nails. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening
to destroy the social and the political fabric of America, Carter had said, and
Sharon had turned to her husband. “Let’s have a family dinner for
Ben,” she’d said. “We’ll have your parents and mine, and we’ll eat in
the backyard. The night before he goes.”
 “Shh,” Dennis said. “I’m listening to this.”
 Sharon hadn’t been able to focus on the speech, perhaps because
her son’s impending departure had caused alarm, or was it a symptom
of the general malaise of the country that the president was speaking
about? Apathy was not like her; once Sharon had been a woman who
had cared about politics deeply. Too deeply, perhaps, and this had led
her to flee conservative Los Angeles, her parents’ Los Angeles, the one
with her father’s balding B-movie cronies chewing cigars on the back
deck and discussing the HUAC hearings. I don’t give one goddamn
who goes down, they’d said. Communists? Just ask me. They’d spit
names up at the sky, toward the fuzzy line of the San Gabriels. That
Los Angeles. Sharon had come east to George Washington University,
even though Helen said no one smart went to GW, ever, and at the
end of her junior year Sharon had found herself sitting at a Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting planning the Freedom
Riders’ trip from Washington to New Orleans, to register voters and
fight Jim Crow in each city along the way.
 By summer, Sharon and her roommate, Louise Stein, decided they
wanted to accompany the hundreds of other kids, black and white, all
ready to sit together at luncheonettes across the South. The Klan was
rumored to be waiting in Birmingham to beat Riders, but Sharon and
Louise ignored these reports, believing that being together and doing
what was right would somehow arm them against terrible violence.
 The night before they were to get on that Trailways bus to Mississippi,
however, Sharon’s father forbade it. Don’t you so much as set
foot on that bus, he’d phoned to tell her. And Sharon had listened.
The next day, she stood at the door gathering her robe at her throat and
watched Louise go out into the foggy Georgetown morning alone. She
returned not a week later, after a night in jail in Jackson, Mississippi.
Sharon had been nearly feral with envy as she’d run her hands along
the white insides of Louise’s wrists, where the handcuffs had been
locked too tight, the blue-black bruises flowering where the metal had
pinched her skin.
 But Sharon had listened to her father, and instead of fighting for
civil rights, she’d dated two doctors, a lawyer, and one potter before
settling on Dennis, marrying, and having children.
 The night of Carter’s speech, though, she thought instead of
Benjamin throwing his jockstraps and Merriweather Post concert
T-shirts into a green duffel bag and heading north.
 “Don’t you think a dinner will be nice, D?” Sharon had asked.
 Our people are losing faith, Carter had said. The phrase had momentarily
stopped her menu planning—an elegant barbecue, steak and grilled
corn and cold soup and some kind of a summer cobbler. She looked
up at the screen and wondered if the president had just read her mind.
Lost faith. She had thought then of her father, finding God as if He
were a shiny penny he’d come upon along a crowded city street.
 It was 1979; only a decade and a half previously, Sharon had been
pregnant with Vanessa when Louise had come to D.C. to march for jobs
and freedom. As they’d entered the Mall, she handed Sharon a fistful
of marbles. So horses will slip and fall and the pigs will be crushed,
Louise hissed. Things could get violent, she’d said. Dennis had looked
askance as he held Ben high, so he could see just how many people
were standing against inequality, and Sharon remembered fingering
the marbles, the feel of them pinging against one another along her
hips when she moved. They’d given her a sense of reckless power, but
she did not let them fall. Sharon was no revolutionary, she knew that
now, but she had tried and she had cared profoundly, and she had been
so furious at her father that she had fled for the East Coast, but in the
end she had not defied him. Yet, she had thought that glorious day, it
was not every girl who could say she carried marbles.
 Now her faith in the power to make changes in the world felt like a
fluid that had been drained from her.
 “Okay!” Dennis said. “Please, Sharon.” His hand hovered over her
wrist to stop her from filing her nails, and Sharon settled back and
decided right then: gazpacho.
 Now Sharon opened the fridge and lifted the large serving bowl,
hugging it to her chest. As she headed out back, she thought that though
the outdoor dinner may have been a flawed idea, she had known it
would be perfect to have the family sitting together in the backyard,
all along the large communal table, the scuffed wood illuminated by lit
candles and flickering torches, before Ben became a dot on the horizon
and left them all behind.

Benjamin absentmindedly carved at the wooden table with his steak
knife until he saw his mother emerge from the porch with a colossal
glass bowl of red soup, the screen door slapping behind her. She
carried it with the same beaming pride with which she brought out her
impeccably browned turkey at Thanksgiving and her tender brisket at
Passover, with an air that made it impossible—and unnecessary—to
compliment her.
 “Borscht!” Tatiana, Dennis’s mother, threw her delicate white hands
up in delight.
 Sharon nudged in between Ben and her father to place the bowl on
the table. “Gazpacho,” she said. She swished her long hair to one side.
“Andalusian gazpacho.”
 “Well, it looks delicious,” Tatti said, nearly wicked, like Natasha on
Bullwinkle, her Russian accent so intense it always sounded bogus to
Ben. She seemed to him to be the very embodiment of Russia; when
she rose from her seat, he’d half expect her ass to leave an imprint of a
hammer and sickle.
 Sharon looked for a moment at the bowl, then shot up and sprinted
back into the house, the porch door smacking again behind her.
 “From Andalusia,” Helen said, leaning into Vanessa. “Fancy-pants.”
She giggled, poking her granddaughter in the side with two of the
pearly daggers she called fingernails.
 Vanessa bristled, holding her stomach.
 Sharon returned with a small bowl of cubed apple, and sliding in
next to Benjamin, she began ladling out the deep red soup.
 “Here, Dad,” she said, sprinkling the tiny cubes of apple and
cucumber on the smooth surface, then a few strands of basil.
 “Looks lovely, sweetheart,” Herbert said.
 “It sure does,” Dennis’s father, Sigmund, said. “You won’t be eating
this well in college, that’s for sure, Ben.”
 Everyone laughed except Vanessa, who looked around the yard as if
she were waiting for someone to pop out of the hedges that separated
their property from that of Mrs. Krandle, a thick-ankled woman who
lived alone and once caught an eight-year-old Vanessa picking her
lilies of the valley. She’d stomped over to the house to complain. I’m
sure she’ll turn into a fine young woman, Mrs. Krandle had said, but
right now, she’s stealing and I can’t say that bodes well for the future.
Soon after, her bushes went up, which, Dennis pointed out, didn’t
bother him one bit, even if he was opposed on principle to folks being
portioned offfrom one another. When they’d moved in, almost twelve
years ago now, Sharon had wanted a fence. Dennis had argued against
it first for the expense, and then against the concept altogether. We as
people should not be closed offfrom each other, he’d argued. But now
that the hedges were there, the privacy was appreciated.
 “You’ll have plenty of bagels to eat, that’s for sure,” Vanessa said,
taking the bowl from her mother in both hands. The hedges had
concealed much over the years: her sunbathing, Ben squirming around
on the hammock with some cheerleader or lacrosse player, two bodies
caught in a net, and the parties her parents used to have when she and
Ben were young and had to come downstairs to say good night to the
red-faced, slurring guests. This summer Vanessa was grateful that her
awkward first embraces had been obscured. “How much oil is in here,
Mom?” she asked, looking into the bowl.
 “Hardly any,” Sharon said. “It’s mostly just vegetables.” Vanessa had
started a diet in early July, and at first her constant questions about
nutrition had cheered Sharon, a champion of any kind of interest in
vitamins, minerals, and general nourishment. She believed in the
power of wheat germ; she had been thinking for years about how to
extract nutrients from one food, say, sardines, and placing them in an
altogether different food, say, her famous scones, to see if the nutritional
benefits could be transferred. She wondered now if Vanessa’s attention
to food had not become a bit obsessive. She had lost a good deal of
weight, which looked lovely, as if she were hatching from the egg of
her adolescence, her features now fully formed, cheekbones high, eyes
pronounced in their wide sockets, the muscles in her arms and legs
long and defined. But Sharon wanted it to stop now with Vanessa fixed
right here in her emergent state of about-to-be-womanhood.
 “Now come on,” Sigmund said, leaning over his soup. “I’d say
Brandeis has a lot to offer besides bagels.”
 “That’s true,” Vanessa said. “They probably have chopped liver and
kugel too.”
 “Where does she get this?” Herbert shook his head.
 Sharon sent Dennis a sharp look.
 “You really shouldn’t talk that way,” Herbert said to Vanessa, who
also looked over at her father for support.
 “It’s a school with a very strong history,” Sigmund said. “Benjamin
is going somewhere with a history of protest. This is extremely
 Avoiding his wife’s and his daughter’s pointed looks, Dennis put down
his spoon. “Thanks, Dad. We’re aware.” He willed his father not to start
up tonight, to stay silent about the Bolsheviks, Joe Hill, and all the dead
labor icons, the shit conditions of the workers, the way the corporate pigs
were draining them for every goddamn penny. He knew. He knew: the
workers’ bodies were not machines; they were giving out! Just like John
Henry hammering down the railway spikes; industry will beat you or it
will beat you. Dennis knew this, but tonight was not the night.
 Dennis looked at his father, his home, framed by the hydrangea and
the azalea bushes, behind him. Dennis was unable to shake his father’s
look of disappointment the first time he and Tatiana had come here,
when they’d just purchased the place. He’d driven his parents from the
train station, Sigmund turning in the passenger seat and clicking his
tongue as he watched the District recede in their wake as they headed
up Sixteenth Street, toward Military Road, toward the suburbs. His
mother had sat up straight in the back, her lime green beauty case in her
lap. Didn’t his father realize Washington was nothing like Manhattan?
Here, there were the rich neighborhoods, hardly urban hubs, on the
streets above Dupont, and Foxhill and Georgetown Park—unaffordable
all, Dennis worked for the government—and then there was ghetto, and
it was black ghetto, not a bunch of Jewish socialists buying chickens
and herring and potatoes like his old neighborhood on the Lower East
Side. He remembered taking the stairs two at a time, racing his sister
up to the third floor and into that railroad apartment. Outside the
closed windows of the flat, shut against the cold and then the dust and
the stink, Orchard Street screamed. It hollered with rage and it shit
and it breathed its halitosis breath and it urinated on its own stones. It
would have been one thing if there’d been no choice, but his father had
decided to live where the workers lived. They could have gone west into
the Village or to Stuyvesant Town like so many of their neighbors had.
But not Sigmund Goldstein.
 His father seemed oblivious to the way cities had changed. The
public pool on Pitt Street turned overnight from Jewish and Italian
girls in red lipstick and white bathing suits cutting into protuberant
thighs to the lithe bodies of the Puerto Rican and Dominican women.
Dennis didn’t even know who sat on those lounge chairs now. The
Cantonese? Sigmund’s friends had gone, but he wouldn’t move,
insisting he wanted no more—nor less—than what anyone else had.
 “Absolutely,” Sharon said. “Brandeis has a history to be proud of.”
She was relieved Ben had not chosen one of those schools so far south,
with their emphasis on fraternities and sports.
  “The spell of revolution is powerful.” Sigmund wiped his mouth
with a napkin. “Right, Tatiana?”
 “Well, yes, I suppose it is in this family, isn’t it?” she said.
 Sharon nodded and Dennis bent his head and resumed eating.
 “Hmmm,” Dennis said. “You didn’t seem to think that during
 “That’s simply not true,” Sigmund said. “You know I was as against
the war as you were. Our methods of protest were different, absolutely.
But what I’m saying here has nothing to do with Vietnam. Nothing at
all. Clearly you don’t understand.”
 Dennis nodded. “Well, to my generation, Vietnam defined us. But
while we were rioting in the streets, your friends were inside, writing
about it. It is a lot more relevant than the Bolsheviks, that’s for sure.”
 “Every movement can be traced back to the Bolsheviks,” Sigmund
said. “You cannot turn your back on history.”
 “Well, I think I have a better understanding of Vietnam. And let
me tell you something. You can’t turn away from the future either,
Dad. It’s going to happen again. Because we’re giving the Soviets their
Vietnam now, aren’t we? This is what will happen if—or I should say
when—there’s an invasion in Afghanistan. The country will be ripped
to bits. And it will never end! You know we’ve authorized funding for
arming the mujahideen there, don’t you?”
 “Of course this doesn’t surprise me.” Sigmund scratched his throat.
“Because they are anti-communists. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
 “Well, it’s true,” Dennis said. “And I’m telling you, it will be just the
same as Vietnam.”
 “Dennis,” Sigmund said, leaning toward his son, “why is it always
this way? We are on the same side.”
 Vanessa groaned. “Enough about politics!” As a child she’d wondered
if little kids growing up in other cities were also stuck listening only
to discussions about affairs of state or if her unfortunate proximity to
the White House was to blame for the constancy of these arguments.
 “It’s gonna be a problem,” Dennis said. “There’s going to be a big
problem is all I have to say. Carter’s going to do something really, really
 “Let’s not forget,” Herbert said to Ben, returning to the original
conversation, “that Brandeis is a Jewish institution. This is important.
This is what makes it special.”
 Sharon closed her eyes. She didn’t know what had happened; one
day not so long ago she woke up to find her parents no longer ate
oysters, and Friday evenings they went to shul instead of the Brown
Derby. They were full-fledged Jews now, and tonight her father wore a
colorfully embroidered yarmulke pinned to the few strands of hair he
had left. It reminded her of her father’s fanatical nationalism, the way
he’d go nuts when they watched the Olympics together. Goddamn
Reds! he’d scream, hitting the television when the Soviets were skating.
He cried every time the national anthem played and an American stood
with a hand over his chest.
 “Yes,” Sigmund said. “That historical aspect is interesting as well.
But it is not in fact a Jewish institution, Herb. It’s not a synagogue; it’s
a university.”
 Herbert shrugged. “Well, I’ll tell you this, it sure as hell wasn’t built
by the gentiles.”
 Sharon hated it when her father spoke this way: of us and of
them, especially since he had spent a large part of her youth trying so
goddamn hard to be them. There had been a brief period when he’d
gone by a different name—Thomas. Herbert Thomas, but then, when
it had come to legally changing the entire family’s name, he had let
it go. Sharon wondered, as she had many times before, exactly why
Dennis was so angry at his father. Because Sigmund was so, well,
cool. What would it have been like to have had him as a father? She
knew Sigmund would have let her go on the Freedom Ride. He would
have given her his blessing, and she would have gone down South
and seen the disenfranchisement and the segregation and the sadness
and the poverty firsthand. She would have had bruises of her own.
Sharon looked around the table. Perhaps she wouldn’t even be here,
she thought. Maybe she’d be a lesbian, as Louise turned out to be.
 “Ummm, can I talk here?” Benjamin said. “Because I’m the one
leaving tomorrow, right?”
 “Yes, Ben,” all the adults murmured.
 “Of course, darling,” Sharon said, touching his wrist.
 “We know!” Vanessa said. “Ben’s going!” She set her spoon down
loudly on the table. It seemed as if there had been talk of little else all
month. Everyone deferred to Ben—the college boy!—and her mother
must have cooked what he’d wanted for dinner each night for the entire
fucking summer. Go already, she thought, just go! But she hadn’t yet
processed what it would mean to have him actually leave. Because Ben
was in nearly every memory she held. So many late nights they had
met in this backyard and lain back on the soft grass, letting the night
sky shift and twist for hours over their drunken heads. They’d make
sure their mother was sound asleep before they tiptoed up the stairs—
avoiding the creaking ones—together.
 “She’s upset,” Sharon said.
 “I am not!” Vanessa said. “I am not upset, okay?”
 Ben looked down at his soup, quiet for a moment, slightly panicked
to think of arriving on campus to find that Grandpa Herbert had been
correct, and he’d be greeted by several men in long black cloaks, white
threads at their waists, and twirls of hair emerging from tall black
hats. Or worse, a long line of reform rabbis would pat him on the
shoulder—What a good little bar mitzvah boy! they’d tell him—and
encourage him to join Hillel, date only girls with lifetime memberships
to Hadassah, and exchange some of his bar mitzvah loot for Israeli
 He hadn’t thought of it much at all until last spring, when his friends
got wind of his decision to go to Brandeis in the fall.
 “Brandeis?” His friend and teammate Nick Papadopoulos, left
forward to Ben’s right, and who was heading to Notre Dame, was
most incredulous. And Jon Ratner, the goalie, who got into Columbia,
the lucky shit, said, “They don’t even have a football team. And the
soccer, is it even Division Three?”
 “I don’t know,” Ben said. But he did know. Brandeis was hardly
known for its excellence in sports. It was just that his priorities had
changed, overnight it seemed, and what he’d valued so much until
this point seemed saved for high school, completed. After that day
something “Jewish” appeared in Ben’s locker each week: a jar of gefilte
fish, the large ovals nesting in a gelatinous mass; a box of matzo, Go
Brandeis Bagels! written across the label in blue pen; a massive jar of
Manischewitz beet borscht that crashed to the floor and splattered
along the hallway and all over Ben’s new Levi’s when he opened the
locker door.
 “It’s a radical place to be,” Ben had told his friends that day, and he
told his family the same thing now. “The Ten Most Wanted on the FBI
list of 1970 all went to Brandeis. Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies, they
were all there.”
 “Yes, they were,” Dennis said, pointing his spoon at his father.
“Radicals come in every generation, Ben.”
 “Oh my goodness, we forgot a toast!” Sharon wobbled up from the
bench and lifted her glass. “To Benjamin!” she said, leaning awkwardly
over the table. “At the beginning of this brand-new adventure!” Sharon
choked on the last word.
 “Hear, hear,” Dennis said, standing, also raising his glass, in part to
save his wife from tears. “Ben, may this next chapter of your life be
fulfilling and fruitful. We wish you the sweetest happiness and success.”
 Sharon waited as Dennis clinked glasses with Ben.
 “Wait, wait!” Tatti said after all the glasses were lowered, because
they had not clinked in every conceivable combination, and she had
not yet touched stemware with her son’s.
 “Pust’ sbudutsya vse tvoi mechty!” she said. May all your dreams come
 “Vashee zda-ró-vye,” Dennis said to the table. To your health.
 “What?” Sharon said. “Tell us!” She disliked it when Dennis and his
mother spoke in Russian together. While Dennis’s Russian was useful
for his work, and while she understood that it was a gift passed from
mother to son, she envied it.
 “Don’t worry. It was just one of Tatti’s many toasts.” Sigmund
 “In the old days, every first toast was to Stalin.” Tatti shook her head.
“Well, at least when we thought the neighbors were listening. But not
 “I’m not worried,” Sharon said, sniffing toward Sigmund. “Though
I can’t say I’ve learned the entire collection of them.” Sharon sat back.
She had sat through countless long and sentimental Russian toasts: to
the dead, to the newlyweds, to the soldiers who had died in the war, to
those who were still fighting. But she had never heard one to Stalin.
“When did you?” She smiled at her father-in-law, thin and wiry in
the blue jeans he’d taken to wearing, right around when he’d started
getting into disco music, odd choices both, as she had always seen
him as a man steeped in the past. Sharon wondered now, if she were
to shake Sigmund, would his bones break and only those ridiculous
dungarees, perfectly creased and thick with Tatti’s starch, keep the rest
of him intact?
 “I manage in Russian,” Sigmund said. “After all these years.”
 “Oh, go ahead, have some wine.” Helen reached over Vanessa for
the bottle of Chianti on the table. “It’s a special occasion tonight.”
 Vanessa covered the top of her glass. “I don’t drink anymore, Nana.”
 “Since when?” Helen’s ash blond hair, sprayed high, was now
wilting like a dying bouquet, and beads of sweat trickled down her
brown, spotted chest into the deep opening of her blouse. “You don’t
eat and you don’t drink. What else is there?” Helen said, turning to
 “I don’t think I want to know,” Sharon said, laughing, but she had
also begun to wonder about her daughter, who seemed to be reducing
herself to only the most necessary elements.
 “I’m not interested in living numb,” Vanessa said. It might have
been Jason’s lingo, but there was truth in it. And truth was what she
was after now. Which was why she had stopped doing the empty, false
activities her friends seemed to favor and that she too had once fallen
prey to—drinking at country-club bonfires, smoking pot at Rachel’s
beach house—stuffthat led them on an endless search for comfort, for
male attention, for beauty. It made them live life unaware of the larger
machinery that kept them all down. When she’d met Jason this past
June, she’d felt able to cut loose from what she only now realized had
been an isolating experience with her friends.
 “My lord, sweetie, you’re young! Have some fun while you still
can!” Helen said. “Right, Herb? Tell the poor girl to have some fun.
Do you dance, honey?”
 “Sure,” he said. “Have a good time. Whatever you want, sweetheart.”
He smiled at Vanessa.
 “Yeah, Nana.” Vanessa smirked. “I dance.” In a way, though, her
grandmother was not wrong. She had stripped herself of frivolity and
had begun to go to shows this summer at Fort Reno and d.c. space,
entering a world where kids thrashed to hard music and whipped
themselves fiercely into one another. And while she couldn’t say she
felt a natural connection to this world, it was new, and it felt important;
the music itself was essential. It seemed to be making a case for art in
general, that it was not stupid or tertiary or unnecessary, and it brought
her away from her girlfriends and their beach houses and crocheted
bikinis and their transistors blasting ELO and Styx.
 “Oh my God, the meat!” Sharon said, standing suddenly and
beginning to stack everyone’s soup bowls, Vanessa’s half-filled bowl
on top.
 “Let me help you,” Sigmund said, rising.
 “It’s okay, Grandpa.” Vanessa stood to help her mother clear. Even
though Tatti had waited on him for nearly forty years, Sigmund had
recently become acquainted with women’s liberation. It was a logical
extension of workers’ rights, and he seemed amazed—and a little
ashamed—that he had not thought of this sooner. Now he often made
huge efforts to help, getting up from the dining room table at holiday
meals and clattering his own dinner plate and flatware toward the kitchen.
 Tatiana rose as well. “Not tonight, my dear. Just sit.”
 Helen lit a cigarette.
 “Mom!” Sharon said, climbing over the bench with the enormous
serving bowl. “We’re eating, for Christ sake!”
 “Go on then,” Helen said, pointing her Winston, mashed between
two brown fingers, at the door. “You won’t notice if you’re not here,
now, will you?”
 Dennis looked over at his mother-in-law and shook his head as she
threw her head back, cackling with laughter.
 “Oh, Dennis, relax. What are you going to do, report me? To your
 “Yes,” Dennis said, bracing himself.
 “Your friends in Moscow?” Helen squinted at Dennis, then at Tatti.
 “I’m from St. Petersburg,” Tatti said, laughing, the deep red hair at
her hairline darkening, wet with sweat. “My brother is the only person
I know in Moscow, I’m afraid.”
 “Yes,” Dennis said again, getting up awkwardly offthe bench. He
thought of his uncle Misha in a badly cut boiled-wool coat, the collar
rimmed with fur, the Kremlin rising behind him as they made their
way through Red Square. Red for beauty, Misha had told him. Not for
communism, he’d said, wagging his finger. Misha was his mother’s
only living relation, yet only Dennis had met him, when he was on
business in the Soviet Union. The old ladies, hair tied in kerchiefs,
bending over their wares, always threw out their bright scarves and
polished their babushkas when he stepped up to their carts with Misha.
“I believe I will have to report you,” Dennis said. Helen had been
accusing him of being a spy since Vanessa’s birth, which he’d missed.
He’d been on a business trip to Moscow, traveling for the Department
of Agriculture, and Vanessa had been two weeks early! The Cold War
had heated and cooled for sixteen years since then, but no matter
its temperature, Helen was convinced her son-in-law was not really
an undersecretary at Agriculture, but an agent in some complicated
espionage ring. “I need to make a call to my superior,” he said, “right
after I get us another bottle of wine.”
 Sigmund shook his head. “This gets more and more ridiculous
every time I hear it.”
 “Oh, lighten up, Sigmund,” Helen said. “It’s just a game I play with
your son. Games are good! They don’t hurt anyone, now, do they?”
She exhaled up into the sky, but the smoke lingered, heavy above the
 “You really shouldn’t,” Herbert said across the table to Helen. “It
bothers her.”
 Vanessa wished she could have a cigarette with her grandmother,
the way they did behind her house in Beverly Hills, Helen’s housecoat
pulled tight around her, balled-up tissues and matches bulging from
her pockets, as they blew smoke toward the mountains and talked
about Helen’s past—as a singer, in a nightclub, before I married that sonof-
a-bitch grandfather of yours. Helen had taught Vanessa how to blow
smoke rings, and she had spent an entire visit jutting out and popping
her bottom jaw just so, and then watching the smoke rings rise up
and cross one another—which always reminded her of the rings of the
Olympics her mother so freakishly adored—before they disappeared.
Cigarettes, Vanessa found, were not something that she had to forgo.
 Helen shrugged. “Everything bothers her. All I can say is, we gotta
live how we gotta live, right, Dennis?”
 “As long as everyone is happy,” Dennis said, picking up the empty
bottle and turning toward the porch.

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Interviews & Essays

An interview with Jennifer Gilmore

Where did you come up with the idea for Something Red? Was there a character or a scene that you envisioned first?

I grew up in Washington and have always been fascinated about how close I was to the ?center? of things, and yet how far I was from affecting any real kind of change. I was always very aware of how Washington operated ?many of our friends were the children of senators or lobbyists kids or government officials?and it seemed distinctly different than how ?inside the beltway? was portrayed in the media. My father works in foreign food policy and my mother worked her whole career for the state department, involved in food aid. I became interested in food as a ?global? issue, as well as how it plays out in a family. Food is ?used? in so many ways?especially now with the rise of ?foodies? and issues of sustainability?and I wanted to explore it as identity, disease, power, the way it brings families together, and drives nations apart. The era was informed by the Cold War, and so I wanted to deal with Russia in some way, largely, because, as in my last book, I am very interested in the way history affects families. Russia was the ?mother country? for so many immigrants, but what was really happening there? What was left behind and what was taken? I became fascinated by the politics of the era?which stemmed from the Soviet Union as well?and how progressivism evolved into 60?s activism and then into post-sixties radicalism, which seemed to be less about real causes and more about music and lifestyle. I wanted to investigate how being a radical is defined differently for and by each generation. These are all just ideas that started me going, but I wanted to be sure I had real characters the reader could relate to intimately so it did not seem like it was just loaded with ideas. Hopefully that?s what I ended up with.

The political backdrop of the novel is incredibly vivid in the minds of your characters. Why did you choose this era?

1979, a year I was too young to remember clearly, mind you, seemed like a seminal moment in history, fraught with endless fictional possibilities. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Iranian hostage crisis was in full bloom, there had been a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Disco was dying, and so was punk rock in its hardcore form, culminating with the death of Sid Vicious. And yet, punk?s more popularized version had reached our shores with the release of the Clash?s London Calling. Women?s oppression seemed to be waning, made concrete by Judy Chicago?s ?The Dinner Party,? shown that year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Culturally, the world was thriving: Styron?s Sophie?s Choice and Mailer?s The Executioner?s Song were released in 1979. So was Manhattan, The Rose, Apocalypse Now and Breaking Away. Then, on Christmas Day, Soviet deployment of its army into Afghanistan began. And on January 4, 1980, Carter announced the US grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Which is when my novel begins.

How did you go about your research for the novel? What were your preferred sources?

History releases me from my own experience and jogs my fictional imagination. For instance, I read a great biography on Ethel Rosenberg, and in addition to her chronicling her life with Julius and in their political beliefs, it mentioned she was a singer. An alto. For some reason this let me see her clearly, and it became a small plot point in the book. So I read a lot of biographies, a lot of Irving Howe to better understand how movements emerged from movements. I read pop culture stuff too, books about punk rock in DC, and Joni Mitchell, and I looked up a zillion Grateful Dead set lists on-line, to be sure that played this song at this particular concert. I read a lot of cookbooks from the era, like Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie, the blue New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. And I also looked on line at old Time Magazine articles, pieces on the Soviet Union. As much as I can read about it now, reading what happened in that time, with journalists reacting immediately, without hindsight, is invaluable. Really, I read anything that could put me in that time, which includes fiction, which often is the most reliable source of real, felt information. E.L. Doctorow?s, The Book of Daniel, was a revelation to me, because it was a fiction writer reacting, not immediately per se, but certainly a lot closer to the Rosenberg?s execution and the rise of the 60?s than I am now. His characters in that book were like the ones mine might have been haunted by.

How would you compare the public opinion of the U.S. government in 1980 with that of modern day? Do you think the particular issues that the Goldstein family copes with transfer? Why or why not?

Writing my way into that era, I was really struck by how little had changed and really, how little we look at the past, as a nation, to make decisions. The Afghanistan issue has hardly diminished. Food prices spiked right when I finished the book, just as they had in anticipation of that first grain embargo, and this was all related to ethanol and oil. And of course our dependence on oil has not diminished either. Even footage of the fashion of the era is startling in how similar it was to what might be fashionable now. On a domestic level though that?s an easier question, largely because an inner-life is timeless. So what Vanessa and Ben, the kids, experience in 1979, is not that different than now, though they are not texting or listening to iPods. And issues of keeping a stressed marriage together, and how we manage our work lives and our home lives, who we are in the world versus who believe we should be in the world, well, these conflicts endure.

It has been said that you are part of a new generation of Jewish-American novelists. How do you think Judaism figures in the lives of your characters?

Judaism as a religion has less of an effect on these characters than Judaism as a culture. There has been much talk about what it means to be culturally Jewish in this country, but in this book, I think my characters are more concerned by what that means politically. And of course, it?s hard to separate the Jewish American experience from an American Immigrant experience, and my characters are grappling with issues that all immigrants deal with, depending on how long they?ve been in this country. This is why I like to see characters of a family, developing over generations. We can see what is passed down and what?s lost. And what?s gained. This family is Jewish, and so where they come from?Eastern Europe?and how they left, why they left, figures into each generation?s stories significantly.

You are in the unique position of being a former Director of Publicity (Harcourt) and a published author. How do you think publishing has changed since you left to pursue a career as a fulltime writer?

I know publishing now more as an author than with occasional peaks inside those elite offices than as an industry insider. It was difficult publishing a novel the first time around, while working behind the scenes, knowing all that has to happen to make a book a success and to still make the leap as an author. I knew the pitfalls of fiction, which are laughable when I remember how we used to bemoan the way fiction doesn?t sell; those numbers have dropped significantly. We all know publishing has changed because the notion of what text is and how it will be distributed, as well as the value of content, has been forever altered by technology, and, of course, by the economy. I wasn?t exactly in publishing in its two martini lunch heyday (although I can say I have indulged in one or two of those lunches), but three years ago, just before I left, Amazon brought Kindle demos in under the cloak of secrecy. Seriously, no one had even seen them yet. We were like, huh, cool, but sure is big. We shall see? I think publishing?s strength is also its weakness. It?s got such a rich and celebrated history as an industry. For the most part, publishing people are incredibly creative, business is done based on the strength of relationships, and the product being peddled is books. That the industry is slow to change I think is in part because who wants to give up that dialogue with such a magical and unique past? And I think many people are feeling that loss acutely.

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