(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 30, 2006)
"All our parents were wrong, thought Joseph; they never left their little street. They had no vision of the future. Everyone had been so scared. He too had been scared, growing up scrawny and taught to fight not with his fists but with words, words in a neighborhood where language meant nothing."
Joseph Brodsky is wrong about his parents. His own father, Herbert Brodsky, who emigrated from Poland to New York in the 1920s, did have a vision of America's promise, and he had emphasized it, night after night, with Joseph and his brother Solomon. "For you," he stressed, "I promise you a golden country." And watching his children achieve success informed Herbert's life and gave it meaning.
Tracing three generations of three overlapping families, all of whom settled in Brooklyn—the Brodskys, Blooms, and Verdoniks—author Jennifer Gilmore uses broad humor and her intimate familiarity with New York to show how families and their values change across the generations. The hopes of the first generation are translated into the achievements of the second generation, and those achievements, in turn, provide the security which allows the third generation to pursue more ephemeral, personal goals. Her appreciation of life's ironies and her obvious love for her characters allow her to create a gentle, loving satire of the Jewish immigrant experience and show its universality.
Rose Verdonik, the immigrant mother of Frances Verdonik, sums up the transition between first and second generations with the Yiddish word farblondzhet: "that horrible space that yawned between the parents who came over and their kids who had no idea from where their parents came." From the 1920s to the 1960s, as the country survives the Depression and World War II, the Brodskys, Blooms, and Verdoniks and their children survive their own battles to become part of the American landscape. As Gilmore presents her characters in the often hilarious scenes which sum up their lives, she creates a loving portrait of a time, place, and culture.
The action gets off to a fast start, as second generation Joseph Brodsky, "the one person who had never caused any trouble," decides that he does not want his daughter Miriam to marry David Bloom. David's father, Seymour Bloom, it seems, has been involved with Joseph Brodsky's brother Solomon, and he may have had mob ties. With wit and warmth, Gilmore unfolds the family genealogies, creating vibrant and memorable characters—feisty, first-generation Inez Bloom, a hairdresser who claims Mae West as her neighbor; Frances Verdonik, who writes letters for her neighbors to send back to their friends in the old country; Joseph Brodsky, a door-to-door salesman during the week and, on weekends, the developer (in his bathtub) of Essoil, the perfect household cleaning product; Solomon Brodsky, "the Terrier," who throws wads of cash at his mother after the first of his not-quite-honest jobs; Seymour Bloom, a theatrical producer, and many more.
Gilmore, who dedicates this novel to her grandparents, presents the generations with such humanity that every reader will be able to identify with them. Her third person narrative perfectly captures the cadence and syntax of her characters' "voices," with their distinctive Brooklyn accent. Wonderful images (the Williamsburg Bridge "tethering [the] neighborhood to the world") and lively humor make the Jewish life of Brooklyn come alive and the neighborhood seem the ideal place to grow up. Her wit and her appreciation of ironies allow her to satirize stereotypes (and even tell ethnic jokes) without offending.
One scene, only a page long, epitomizes Gilmore's lively humor and ability to capture characters in hilarious dramatic scenes which reflect their states of mind: Teenaged Frances Verdonik, attending a bar mitzvah, admires the centerpiece—a chopped liver "sculpture" in the shape of a swan, "the neck as smooth and curved as if it had been blown from glass." As she watches her gorgeous, swan-like sister Pauline preen across the room, Frances knows that she herself will be stuck forever "watching Hester Black and Charlotte Meyer bitch and moan about the price of herring and potatoes." The ensuing scene is a classic.
Charming, emotionally engaging, and full of stylistic surprises, this novel has more "heart" than any other novel I've read all year. Gilmore's style, her characters, and her themes are so well developed that readers of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures will read it with broad smiles. This is a debut novel that sings!
- Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Jennifer Gilmore
- The Quarterly Conversation review of Golden Country
- The New York Times review of Something Red
- Washington Post review of The Mothers
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About the Author:
Jennifer Gilmore's work has appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Allure, BookForum, CutBank, Nerve, Salon, and The Stranger. She works in publishing as the Director of Publicity at Harcourt.
Gilmore lives in Brooklyn, New York.