An epic exploration of American radicalism through the eyes of a firecracker matriarch and her discontented brood of children, comrades, and lovers, Dissident Gardens might just be the next Big American Novel. Recommended By Rhianna W., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers — an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals.
At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women. Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist and mercurial tyrant who terrorizes her neighborhood and her family with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her brilliant and willful daughter, Miriam, is equally passionate in her activism, but flees Rose’s suffocating influence and embraces the Age of Aquarius counterculture of Greenwich Village.
Both women cast spells that entrance or enchain the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her nephew, the feckless chess hustler Lenny Angrush; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy Gogan; their bewildered son, Sergius. These flawed, idealistic people all struggle to follow their own utopian dreams in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference.
As the decades pass—from the parlor communism of the ’30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged ’70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment — we come to understand through Lethem’s extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.
Brilliantly constructed as it weaves across time and among characters, Dissident Gardens is riotous and haunting, satiric and sympathetic — and a joy to read.
"While collective memory might offer some hazy grasp of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklists, all but forgotten is the real American Communist Party and its Depression-era heyday. In this epic and complex new novel, Lethem considers what happened to the ACP, as well as some other questions, about maternal isolation and filial resentment. The book begins with the case of Rose Zimmer, in Queens, New York, who was officially ousted from the party in 1955 for sleeping with a black cop. Rose's daughter, Miriam, is a teenager at the time, and she soon discovers the pull of Greenwich Village bohemians. Rose's and Miriam's stories are interwoven, as the narrative moves back and forth in time, uncovering Rose's doomed relationships, as well as Miriam's fiery determination to escape her mother's rage. Miriam's son, Sergius, also comes into the story as a child and an adult, juxtaposing three generations along with Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose's black cop boyfriend, an unexpected member of the family by proxy and the most interesting character of the book by far. Cicero formed an unexpected relationship with the bitter, Jewish woman as a kid, and, in turn, became a beneficiary of her intellect. All together, the cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem's writing, as always, packs a witty punch. The epoch each character inhabits is artfully etched and the book is as illuminating of 20th-century American history as it is of the human burden of overcoming alienation. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME Entertainment. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"While collective memory might offer some hazy grasp of McCarthyism and the Hollywood black-lists, all but forgotten is the real American Communist Party and its Depression-era heyday. In this epic and complex new novel, Lethem considers what happened to the ACP, as well as some other questions, about material isolation and filial resentment....The cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem's writing, as always, packs a witty punch. The epoch each character inhabits is artfully etched and the book is as illuminating of 20th-century American history as it is of the human burden of overcoming alienation." Publishers Weekly
"A dysfunctional family embodies a dysfunctional epoch, as the novelist continues his ambitious journey through decades, generations and the boroughs of New York....The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Jonathan Lethem is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and the nonfiction collection The Ecstasy of Influence, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, among other publications.