Jennifer Gilmore

Jennifer Gilmore chronicles a family in 1980. (Pedro Barbeito / Simon & Schuster)

Something Red

A Novel

Jennifer Gilmore

Scribner: 308 pp., $25

In Jennifer Gilmore's second novel, "Something Red," people find it easier to lust after abstract notions of social change than to figure out how to implement the real thing.

Set in Washington, D.C., in 1980, the book revolves around the Goldstein family -- mother Sharon, father Dennis, and teenagers Ben and Vanessa -- all of whom feel they missed out on some mythical moment when large-scale transformation was actually possible. Now, each Goldstein must figure out how to fulfill that classic bumper sticker directive: "Be the Change You Want to See in the World."

Gilmore, whose 2006 novel "Golden Country" was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, chronicles these tendencies with detail and generosity. Like Zoë Heller's biting domestic saga "The Believers," "Something Red" is a portrait of a secular Jewish family defined by its convictions even as it is undone by them. But while both books highlight the tensions of being an idealist in a world that couldn't care less, Gilmore, unlike Heller, doesn't find much to laugh about.

If pressed, all four Goldsteins might admit they share the same basic progressive principles. Yet each has his or her own idea about where they should lead. As the book opens, Ben, a high school jock, is about to leave for Brandeis, where he'll give up the adulation of cheerleaders for a life of righteous rebellion.

Left behind with their parents, 16-year-old Vanessa is sure she's found a home in the sneering music and aggressive ethics of D.C.'s punk scene. She's also developed an eating disorder. Sharon -- a caterer for the capital's elite, reeling from her partly empty nest (and the stress of living with a prickly daughter) -- has taken up with an affirmations-based life-coaching group she hopes will transform her negative energy into something brilliantly positive. Dennis is immersed in his career with the Department of Agriculture, often traveling to Moscow, where he wonders at the country his mother fled years before.

Hope and disillusion

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.

This results in some wonderfully sensitive portrayals but also can make the narrative lag. Despite a sense of late Cold War paranoia, the novel sometimes feels more like a series of leisurely character studies than a story with real stakes. Scenes overlap; we often see an event from the perspective of one character, then revisit it through the eyes of another. Usually more repetitious than revealing, the device is most resonant when it contrasts differing beliefs about human potential and the messy state of the world.

Just as Ben is discovering his political will, his father finds his own sense of hope slipping away. "The prospect of watching his son go through it all the way he had, the ignorant hope, then the futile knowledge!" Dennis thinks to himself, after learning that his son is protesting the U.S. boycott of the coming Moscow Olympics. Tellingly, Ben's college girlfriend, Rachel -- a fleshy, feminist counterpoint to his blond high school conquests -- illustrates his shifting allegiances more than his ties to any particular cause.

Vanessa, meanwhile, finds that "the more she gave up for political reasons, the easier it was to do so." In the process, it seems possible that she might disappear. Then again, she's probably just being a teenager: Visiting her brother at Brandeis, she finds that dogma looks different in the light of a dorm room.

Loss of faith

Sharon, who missed out on the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s and was "nearly feral with envy" over the bruises with which a friend returned after being arrested, now finds that "her faith in the power to make changes in the world felt like a fluid that had been drained from her." Both she and Dennis are more than a little lost, their sense of the future's promise so closely tied to their experience of being young parents, marching on the Mall with wide-eyed little kids on their shoulders, that it's hard to imagine moving forward now that their children have changed.

Gilmore gives her characters real depth, but she shifts between their layers so smoothly and so often that it can be hard to tell exactly where they stand. Rarely does anyone say or do something without it being followed by a memory. This is surely part of the larger point, that our pasts precede us, messing with our beliefs and choices in ways we can't always control. It's a lovely idea, but it can also drain the energy from what is already a vestigial plot which speeds up incongruously and unconvincingly in the last few chapters.

As for the Goldsteins, they prove harder to shake, as their lives bleed beyond the boundaries of their story. "Something Red" may be uneven, but these characters are crafted with care, conviction and a little self-consciousness -- which seems just as it ought to be.

Loeb is a writer in New York.