Abel’s politically and psychologically acute debut follows an inexperienced camp counselor, a teenaged camper, and an idealistic and self-deluded 20-something camp director through a summer of changes at a tiny, hippie-flavored camp in the high desert of Colorado in 1990. Caleb, who founded the camp several years earlier, has settled into a routine of introducing rich city and suburban kids to the wild and basking in their admiration. His cousin Rebecca, a student at Berkeley, is, despite her objections, shipped off to the camp by her father to be a counselor for the summer. The only saving grace is the presence of high school junior David, Rebecca’s childhood friend and secret crush. As David attempts to convince a distracted Caleb to allow him to live at the camp year-round and Rebecca is shaken to discover problems with her family back home, the camp is threatened by the son of the former owner of the property it’s on, who feels that Caleb has betrayed his family. Abel combines a wry sense of humor with compassion towards all of her misguided characters. A strong sense of time and place anchors the story, and Abel’s well-crafted plot brings all the strands of the story together into a suspenseful yet believable conclusion. Without landing heavily on any political side, and without abandoning hope, Abel’s novel lightly but firmly raises questions about how class and cultural conflicts play out in the rural West. (May)
In this novel set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Caleb, a dashing young Easterner, longs to create a camp where kids can live simply, work, and enjoy the outdoors. With a loan, he buys a Colorado ranch during a real estate bust. He has the charisma of a cult leader and succeeds in attracting residents, despite a lack of training and the terribly hot summer climate. Rebecca, a new counselor, comes from a family of idealists who publish a weekly paper pointing out the faults of the Reagan and Bush administrations. She has grown up attending rallies and carrying picket signs. At the camp, she is surprised to see that David, a boy whom she considered a nerd back home, is popular with the girls. Teens will be involved in their romance as they discover each other's charms. Tension mounts when the local ranchers demand their land back, and the contrast between the conservative locals and the idealistic camp staff is well described. VERDICT This is an excellent coming-of-age tale with a sympathetic cast of characters. For teens who want a realistic, romantic, and thought-provoking story.—Karlan Sick, formerly at New York Public Library
In a comic debut, the lives of five characters come undone at a remote Colorado summer camp.It takes more than 300 pages for first-time novelist Abel to reveal the meaning of her title, delivered in the baritone of melancholy Ira Silver, who has shuttered his radical left newspaper: "Maybe everybody has one decade, call it an optimistic decade, when the world feels malleable and the self strong." Twelve pages later, his wife and partner, Georgia, succinctly disagrees: "Such typical Ira bullshit, creating a universal theory out of his own personal malaise." The recipient of this yin and yang commentary is their daughter, Rebecca, a Berkeley undergraduate, late to her own coming-of-age party. As the novel begins, Ira mystifies Rebecca by ordering her to a high-altitude summer camp: "He'd never given her a gift of any kind before, material or experiential." The destination, called Llamalo, is run by her charismatic cousin, Caleb, "his name the birdsong of this place." He tells campers "Llamalo is an invitation to act differently, to be someone new. How often do you get that chance?" Caleb is a bit of a hustler; he bought the failing spread of a small cattle farmer, Don Talc, and his son, Donnie, whose resentment at losing the land morphs into a kind of Cliven Bundy-style rage. Abel is excellent at class resentment and its signifiers—Caleb cleans out the faltering town's clothes and tools and figurines at auction for camp costumes and art projects. Abel writes in larking, pleasurable sentences, letting each protagonist—including David Cohen, devoted camper and Rebecca's childhood friend—wrestle with loneliness and horniness and purpose. The story moves across one summer in the early 1990s, with short, clever flashbacks to the Reagan-era 1980s. But the pacing is off: Very little happens in the first third and too much is crammed into the last stretch.A playful look at Jewish coming-of-age and coming-to-terms in the American West.
Abel, who previously worked as a reporter, is a perceptive writer whose astute observations keep the book funny and light even under the weight of its Big Ideas. [She] draws convincing parallels between the rituals of camp and those of activism. Is this a book about the failure of Zionism, an exploration of the limits of idealism or a literary coming-of-age novel? It's a bit of all three. Most interestingly, it doesn't just rehash the story of the Holy Land we already know, but imagines a new, subversive ending.”—New York Times Book Review “The Optimistic Decade is a stunning and unusual debut. Heather Abel's subjects are political idealism, American-style lust for land, and the perils and pleasures of young love. Her voice is warm, beautifully funny, and completely original. Although the novel spans decades and tackles big themes, its intimate moments and vivid creation of an unforgettable landscape are what continue to haunt me. Once you enter the world of this book, you—like the characters—will find it hard to leave."—Stephen McCauley, author of My Ex-Life “Funny and ruefully astute.”—People "The Optimistic Decade is a stunning and unusual debut. Heather Abel's subjects are political idealism, American-style lust for land, and the perils and pleasures of young love. Her voice is warm, beautifully funny, and completely original. Although the novel spans decades and tackles big themes, its intimate moments and vivid creation of an unforgettable landscape are what continue to haunt me. Once you enter the world of this book, youlike the characterswill find it hard to leave."Stephen McCauley, author of My Ex-Life “I loved every minute I spent reading Heather Abel's The Optimistic Decade, a sharply rendered portrait of America in 1990. The novel is rich in the conflicting energies of the time—lingering resentments from the previous decade's stark class divisions, a renewed hope for the decade to come — and these clashes are played out over the course of one summer at a Colorado camp. The result is an exuberant and nonjudgmental examination of the unique conflicts of the era.”—Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed “Abel’s timely debut is bound to draw comparisons to The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The Optimistic Decade follows five characters in Reagan-era America, and explores the limits of idealism and the complexities of well-intentioned activism.”—Entertainment Weekly “The best, worst, right, and left of America’s ideologies mash up in The Optimistic Decade.” —New York Magazine “A utopian summer camp born of an oil bust and populated by people both yearning for a waning idealism and coming to terms with their lives and relationships? Sign us up. Heather Abel’s sharp and shining debut brings to life a quirky, specific landscape that brings into focus essential truths about life—growing up and into it, and just plain living it.” —SouthernLiving.com "A sharply funny novel about a Utopian summer camp presided over by charismatic leader Caleb Silver, who’s on a mission to teach others to live simply." —NY Post “In her debut novel, The Optimistic Decade, Heather Abel explores the moral evolutions of adolescence with a charming coming-of-age story about two lonely teenagers and the summer that brought them together. Writing with both warmth and incisiveness, Ms. Abel has crafted an engaging look at idealism and the difficulties in maintaining it. The Optimistic Decade is an exceptionally timely look at what it means to be politically aware and reminds readers of the intoxicating power of idealism, particularly when we find ourselves on the precipice of independence.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “The Optimistic Decade deserves the elusive accolade of “original” for its believable construction and flawless attention to detail. Within the brilliant, multilayered canopy of the novel’s world, Heather Abel’s writing comes across as a sincere and tender channel for a story that must be told . . . this strong, astute debut is a study of love in many forms. To read it is nothing less than a mitzvah.”—BookPage "A coming-of-age story set in the age of Reagan and Bush, Heather Abel’s wonderful novel asks a question that’s more relevant now than ever: Amid the maddening news of the world, how do you go about living an authentic life? Perceptive, funny, and utterly original, The Optimistic Decade is a book for anyone who’s navigated the twin crises of idealism and youth."—Nathan Hill, author of The Nix "This witty and psychologically astute debut novel could not be more timely.”—Peter Heller, author of Celine and The Dog Stars "What does it mean to measure our goodness against wide-open spaces? In Heather Abel’s sharp, beautiful debut, American idealism and the obsession with land meet up on a single plateau in the Rockies, leading to a summer of stunning consequences. Long after The Optimistic Decade has ended, readers will linger with these pages, haunted by Abel's ability to bring both the spectacular and the intimate to life."—Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing “Big-hearted, wise, and beautifully written, this sharply observant exploration of idealism gone awry engages at every level.”—Andrea Barrett, author of The Voyage of the Narwhal and Archangel "Heather Abel writes with beguiling humor about the possibilities of self transformation and the limits of idealism. I love the warmth with which she invokes her characters, young and middle-aged, and the wit with which she invokes their longing to be their best selves. The Optimistic Decade is a gripping and very timely debut.”—Margot Livesey, author of Mercury “A fresh and savvy first novel.” —BBC.com A “politically and psychologically acute debut… A strong sense of time and place anchors the story, and Abel’s well-crafted plot brings all the strands of the story together into a suspenseful yet believable conclusion. Without landing heavily on any political side, and without abandoning hope, Abel’s novel lightly but firmly raises questions about how class and cultural conflicts play out in the rural West.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review) “This is an excellent coming-of-age tale with a sympathetic cast of characters. …a realistic, romantic, and thought-provoking story.”—Library Journal (starred review) "In a comic debut, the lives of five characters come undone at a remote Colorado summer camp . . . Abel is excellent at class resentment and its signifiers . . . [she] writes in larking, pleasurable sentences, letting each protagonist...wrestle with loneliness and horniness and purpose . . . A playful look at Jewish coming-of-age and coming-to-terms in the American West."—Kirkus Reviews “A generous, thoughtful view of youthful passion and idealism seen through the lens of age, as its characters struggle with questions of personal authenticity.”—Library Journal
Set in the 1980s, this coming-of-age tale features Rebecca Silver, a freshman at Berkeley and daughter of Ira Silver, publisher of an influential radical newspaper. Her first 18 years have been a continuing series of causes, rallies, and the pieties of leftist politics. The summer after her freshman year, her parents plan something different, signing her up to be a counselor at Llamalo, a Colorado wilderness camp run by her older cousin Caleb. There she finds her troubled childhood friend David, who has recently quit high school and come to Llamalo believing that he has discovered a path for his own life in the camp's radical simplicity. Slowly, the two become involved, and Rebecca begins to discover an identity outside of political activism. As summer ends, a crisis erupts when Donnie, the son of the rancher from whom Caleb bought Llamalo, returns. Donnie believes that Caleb stole the ranch from his family and attempts to reclaim the land. VERDICT While politics plays a major role in this story, Abel's first foray into fiction is not a political novel. Rather, it is a generous, thoughtful view of youthful passion and idealism seen through the lens of age, as its characters struggle with questions of personal authenticity.—Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA