Something Red

A Novel

About The Book

When Jennifer Gilmore’s first novel, Golden Country, was published, The New York Times Book Review called it "an ingeniously plotted family yarn" and praised her as an author who "enlivens the myth of the American Dream." Gilmore’s particular gift for distilling history into a hugely satisfying, multigenerational family story is taken to new levels in her second novel.

In Washington, D.C., life inside the Goldstein home is as tumultuous as the shifting landscape of the times. It is 1979, and Benjamin is heading off to college and sixteen-year-old Vanessa is in the throes of a rocky adolescence. Sharon, a caterer for the Washington elite, ventures into a cultlike organization. And Dennis, whose government job often takes him to Moscow, tries to live up to his father’s legacy as a union organizer and community leader.

The rise of communism and the execution of the Rosenbergs is history. The Cold War is waning, the soldiers who fought in Vietnam have all come home, and Carter is president. The age of protest has come and gone and yet each of the Goldsteins is forced to confront the changes the new decade will bring and explore what it really means to be a radical.


Something Red
is at once a poignant story of husbands and wives, parents and children, activists and spies, and a masterfully built novel that unfurls with suspense and humor.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

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 screaming.

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 off from 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 off from 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 important.”

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 Vietnam.”

“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 stupid.”

“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 bonds.

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 true.

“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 laughed.

“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 now.”

“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 Sharon.

“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—stuff that 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 friends.”

“Yes,” Dennis said, bracing himself.

“Your friends in Moscow?” Helen squinted at Dennis, then at Tatti. “Huh?”

“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 off the 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 table.

“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 son-of-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.

After the steak—which Sharon had marinated in ginger and soy, and a touch of cream for sweetness, even though she knew Vanessa, who had a few weeks back announced she was a vegetarian, would not touch it—and the corn and the salad were finished, Sharon brought out the cobbler she’d made with blackberries and raspberries from the Haley farm. Dennis opened another bottle of wine, though he wasn’t sure if anyone but he and Helen, whom he had never seen refuse a drink of any kind, would partake.

He filled Ben’s empty glass.

“College boy,” he said. Ben, I hardly knew ya, he wanted to say, thumping him on the back. But it was true; how he had raised a kid whose thigh muscles bulged from the speed and coordination that enabled him to start varsity soccer as a freshman still confounded him. Ben had lettered. Dennis had felt as if he were living in some teen movie about high school when Ben had come home with that big W, for “Wildcats,” and handed it to Sharon to sew on the back of his jacket. Only now did Dennis realize he had been waiting for the moment that Benjamin would come home with a passion that was not of the body.

Because that was another thing about Ben. Ben and his body. Sometimes if Dennis arrived home unexpectedly, he would be greeted by the sound of his son schtupping in the bedroom down the hall. Always some different little tart. If it weren’t so off-putting, it would be admirable, Dennis supposed, but it was off-putting, terribly so. He tried not to think of the girls. Just last week, Dennis had been unable to sleep and had gone downstairs to the basement, his little spot beneath the house where he did his own brand of yoga. It was also where he stored his living-room-banned artwork from the painting and sculpture classes he’d taken at the Corcoran when the kids were young. As he’d slipped into the sleeping bag he kept rolled behind the couch for just this purpose, his bare legs were met by something cold and wet. He stuck his hand inside and was besieged by the sharp, tinny smell of what he realized, as he brought his fingers to his nose, was semen.

He wouldn’t miss being confronted by Ben’s semen, that’s for sure, Dennis thought, clinking glasses with his son. But he missed the young Benjamin, the one he’d carried around in that little sack strapped to his chest, the Benjamin he’d buckled into swings at Candy Cane City and pushed high in the air to his exhilarated delight, the preverbal Ben, his hot breath on his cheek as he lay in bed with him on Sunday mornings while Sharon baked popovers downstairs. That Ben—the one bobbing to Peter, Paul and Mary, pretending he had a hammer, and a bell, and a song! to! sing!, going at the bongo drums and the xylophone, gifts from a friend at the State Department—he’d been gone for quite a while now.

“Oh, Ben,” Dennis said. “We’re really going to miss you.”

Everyone watched Ben take a sip, and then they saw him smile over the rim of his glass as three blushing young women, followed by Jon Ratner, made their way up the side path to the back of the house.

And that, Sharon thought, stacking the plates in the dishwasher, was that. The torches had been extinguished, the gray twilight had darkened to night, and everyone had moved inside. Her father was talking to Tatiana in the living room about how Brandeis was giving Russian Jews asylum, which was really nice, he was saying, didn’t she agree?

Ben was gone for the night. He’d gotten up to greet the girls, his back turned to her, his arms wide, and Sharon had seen the girls’ faces—such tan, small-featured, young faces—their eyes shut tight, lips quivering into smiles, their chins hooked over his shoulder. “Hey, Mr. and Mrs. G,” Jon had said. “Looks like I missed a good dinner.”

“Ben,” Sharon had nervously said, just before he shook free of the girls’ embrace.

“Let him go,” Helen said. “It’s his last night home, darling, just let him.”

Sharon sighed and sat up straight. “Are you going out, Ben?” she asked stiffly.

He turned back to face the table. “Yeah. Just for a bit, okay?”

“There’s a party over at Papadopoulos’s,” Jon said by way of explanation.

Sharon nodded quickly and, looking down at the table, ran her finger over the scratches in the wood. “Sure.”

“Of course!” Dennis grandly stood up. “Have fun, gang.”

Vanessa cringed. Gang.

“Thanks.” Ben went to kiss his grandparents good-bye. And then his mother. “Dinner was totally great.” He waved at Vanessa. “See ya, pal,” he said, to which she rolled her eyes and flipped him the bird.

“Bright and early.” Dennis leaned lightly on Helen’s shoulder for support as he climbed off the bench.

“Yes,” Sharon said. “We need to get an early start for Boston.”

They all watched Benjamin lope down the hill, following Jon and the girls into an old magenta Pinto. Then they sped off, the tailpipe dragging down the empty street.

© 2010 Jennifer Gilmore

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Something Red includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Gilmore. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. 

 
 

Introduction

It’s 1980 in Washington D.C. and the domestic disturbances of the Goldstein family – a son going off to college, a daughter in the throes of adolescence, a mother’s mid-life crisis– inevitably collide with the shifting political landscape of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the end of the Cold War and the grain embargo against the U.S.S.R.

Navigating three generations, Jennifer Gilmore deftly intertwines the lives of her indelible characters as their marriages, faith and politics play out against the backdrop of history – the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Olympic boycott and the Iranian hostage crisis. Something Red is at once a poignant story of husbands and wives, parents and children, activists and spies and a brilliant novel crackling with energy, humor, and intelligence.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1.) Gilmore includes an epigraph selected from Grace Paley’s “Faith in the Afternoon” that reads “If you have something sensible to say, don’t wait. Shout it out loud right this minute.” Do you think these lines effectively capture the tone of the novel? Why or why not?

2.) The political landscape is a presence that directly affects the lives of the characters. Discuss the political events and situations that were relevant at the time? Do you have any memories of these events?

3.) Food plays an enormous role in the novel—from the grain embargo to Sharon’s cooking, to Vanessa’s eating, to Tatiana’s meringue cookies. Discuss the many contexts in which Gilmore uses food, and the significance in each.

4.) How would you compare the public opinion of Carter and his administration in the story with current attitudes towards the U.S. government? Can you relate to any of the characters in respect to this question? Who, and why?

5.) At the forefront of the novel is Sharon’s “mid-life crisis.” She claims that “she had lost touch with the earth, with the actual ground of this planet, with her home and the people in her home, and that she floated, wholly untethered, unsure as to what her role in the world now was and how she would ever get back down to realize it” (21). Do you think that this phenomenon can be seen as unique to her generation of women? Or is her predicament timeless?

6.) The Olympics surface several times in the novel. Sharon attributes a greater power to the tradition, one that is echoed in Ben’s rally later on. She remembers that “it was the Soviets who swept the medals that year. It was 1956, just before she’d moved East, and they’d watched the Russians participate for the first time; it was as if they were watching the very moment they achieved world domination” (27). Do you think Sharon and Ben were right to believe that the Olympics are “outside” of politics? Has our perception and the importance with which we imbue the Olympics changed in the past three decades?

7.) Dennis muses that “socialism hadn’t saved anyone, had it? People were still hungry and poor and cruel and stupid. It hadn’t changed a thing” (42). It is clear that Dennis sees the misfortune of humanity as inevitably fixed. Which characters might disagree with him? What would they argue in their defense?

8.) Vanessa, a teenager struggling with bulimia, recalls a set of Russian dolls from her childhood: “Looking at them in a descending line, she would wonder if all these pieces together constituted one doll, or if they were really twelve different dolls, with separate selves and souls” (47). How do you think this thought reflects Vanessa’s own struggle with self-identity? Do you think this question of multiple selves carries over to any of the other members of her family?

9.) Ben moves from being a high school athlete who hangs out with his teammates to a more radical, lifestyle when he goes to college. How does this change when he chooses to take action against the Olympic boycott? What parts of his personality do you see merge in these scenes?

10.) Sharon and Vanessa liken Ben’s rally speech to the “call and response of synagogue.” How much does Jewish identity play into the novel? Do you think it is overshadowed by their nationalistic loyalties? Why or why not?

11.) When Ben retrieves Vanessa after their night of partying, he wonders, “just as he said it, what it would mean exactly, but still he told his sister, his little sister, “Vanessa,” he said. “Let me take you home.” (246). What do you think this phrase means to Ben, and the rest of his family? How is it similar or different from Dennis and Sharon’s reconciliation at the Ritz?

12.) Discuss the role of music in the novel. How does it highlight both the differences and the similarities in the various members of the Goldstein family?

13.) All the characters seem to be reacting in some way to the past, whether it’s their own childhoods, or the lives of their parents.  How does memory function in the novel and how does the past haunt the present?  Does it affect the decisions these characters make?  Are they running from the past or are they trying in some way to retrieve the past?

14.) Discuss the significance of the Snow Maiden story, a recurring thread throughout the novel: “The Snow Maiden listened to the song and tears rolled down her cheeks. And then her feet began to melt beneath her; she fell onto the earth and then she was gone, a light mist rising from the place she had fallen” (266).

15.) Were you surprised by the end of the novel? Discuss the importance of secrets and trust in the novel.

16.) In her last moments with Dennis and her husband, Tatiana feels it necessary to clarify that it was, indeed, Helen singing at a Workers Party years before. Why does she do this? What do you make of the rest of her confession? Can you sympathize with her? In what sense?

 

Tips for Enhancing your Book Club

1.) Visit www.jennifergilmore.net to learn more about Jennifer Gilmore’s past, present and future projects. You can even arrange to have her join your book group’s discussion!

2.) Host a screening of the movie Miracle, which chronicles the 1980 United States Ice Hockey team’s defeat of the Russians and brings to life Cold War tensions.

3.) If in the area, visit Brandeis University to learn more about its unique activist background.

4.) Bake meringue cookies to share with your book club.  Here’s a link to some Tatiana might have made: http://www.marthastewart.com/recipe/cherry-pecan-meringues

5.) Want to be brave and try cherries jubilee, a la Sharon’s Food Matters party? Be careful! Here’s an easy recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/rachael-ray/cherries-jubilee-recipe/index.html

 

A Conversation with Jennifer Gilmore

1. 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.  (When my sister was young, she thought my mother was a waitress!)  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.

 

2. 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.

 

3. 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 all the time, at old newspapers and 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, including fiction, which is often 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.                                        

4. 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.

4. 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?

Let me start by saying I’m really proud to be part of this incredible and long literary tradition.  Judaism as a religion has less of an effect on these characters, though, 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.

5. Your novel incorporates three very distinct generations of Americans. And yet, often they seem more similar than they are different. For instance, at one point a character states that, “I’ve got the same problems my mother did. Only she got to take Valium” (51). Do you think that some things are inevitably passed on from one generation to the next?  

I think the way things traits, tragedies, flaws, joys are passed down over the generations is fascinating.  In Something Red, the Goldstein’s activism is something that every generation—grandparent, parent, child—deals with, but what that term means gets transformed by time.  The difference comes from how long they’ve been in this country, the way the world changes over time, the development of technology, the change in popular culture.  But at the crux of it, these characters’ urges to believe they are effecting change is what drives them, however futile or wrong-headed, or pure that impulse might be.

6. Who were the most influential authors in your development as a writer? Do you have any current favorites? 

When I think of who I’ve looked to over time, it doesn’t always match with what my work looks like on the surface.  But there are some writers who give you permission when you are young and casting your net.  I admire Mary Gaitskill a lot—she takes incredible risks, the same way Jayne Anne Phillips can.  So those writers gave me permission to be brave in my characters’ emotional lives.  I would put Leonard Michaels and some Saul Bellow in that category as well.  Grace Paley, who I quote in the epilogue, let me hear dialogue for what seemed like the first time.  The way her characters speak to one another was revelatory to me in regards to audience.  Characters don’t always have to be telling the reader a story; just like in life, eavesdropping can be much more fun. The use of scope—of looking outside the self and daily life—it goes to the men, though the reason for this is many-fold.  Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Plot Against America, and the way he uses history to create plot and illuminate his characters, was thrilling.  But as a writer, I was raised on short stories, and for good sentences and stories, Raymond Carver and Harold Brodkey and Tim O’Brien, they’re who I look at over and over again.

7. Are you working on anything new? Do you think you will ever return to 1980?

1980 was a weird and wonderful moment in time—what came after was a whole new era.  The 60’s and 70’s seem so distant when we get into the 80’s and 90’s in America.  Never say never, but were I to revisit that year, I would have to come at it from a new angle.  From where I sit now, I can’t imagine what that would be. I am working on something new, and it moves back and forth in time between the more current day and the far past, but it’s in the early stages and this could change.  I am not a writer who has a structure in place that stays—it shifts as the characters move and grow.  I tell my students that every novel is historical.  One can never write about the moment we’re in, because, of course, it is instantly the past.  It’s impossible to keep up with right this moment.  I think about this when considering when to set a book; how present is the present and when does it become the characters’—or my own—past?

About The Author

Photograph by Pedro Barbeito

Jennifer Gilmore is the author Golden Country, a 2006 New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Jewish Book Award, and Something Red, a New York Times Notable Book of 2010. Her work has appeared in Allure, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, and The Washington Post. She lives in Brooklyn.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 30, 2010)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416575948

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"Rich and entertaining." -Vanity Fair

"Ambitious and provocative, more Molotov cocktail than standard-issue domestic drama, raising profound questions about loyalty, independence, love of family and of country." -O, The Oprah Magazine

“Gilmore glides smoothly from one perspective to another, giving equal and anxious weight to each…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.” —Susann Cokal, New York Times Book Review

“Rendering the Goldsteins with appealing vividness, Gilmore seems mostly interested in their inner lives. She digs deep into their histories—both personal and familial—to get at the root of their beliefs and to hint at their spiraling disenchantment.” —LA Times

"[A] richly textured story of the irritations, disappointments, disruptions and remembered joys of family life." -Judith Viorst, Moment Magazine

“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.” –Washington Post

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Jennifer Gilmore