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Dissident Gardens: A Novel Hardcover – September 10, 2013
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*Starred Review* Lethem extends his stylistically diverse, loosely aligned, deeply inquiring saga of New York City (Motherless Brooklyn, 1999; The Fortress of Solitude, 2003; Chronic City, 2009) with a richly saturated, multigenerational novel about a fractured family of dissidents headquartered in Queens. It’s 1955, and witty, voluble, passionate Rose Zimmer—an Eastern European Jew, worshipper of Abraham Lincoln, and street-patrolling leftist—has outraged her communist comrades by having an affair with Douglas Lookins, an African American policeman. She, in turn, is wrathful when she catches Miriam, her smart and gutsy15-year-old daughter, in bed with a college student. Lethem circles among his tempestuous narrators and darts back and forth in time, landing on historical hot spots as he traces the paths of radical Rose; Douglas’ brainy, skeptical son, Cicero, who becomes an audacious college professor; intrepid Miriam, who marries a folksinger desperately searching for authenticity, and their woebegone son, Sergius, who is led astray by a sexy Occupier. Lethem is breathtaking in this torrent of potent voices, searing ironies, pop-culture allusions, and tragicomic complexities. He shreds the folk scene, eviscerates quiz shows, pays bizarre tribute to Archie Bunker, and offers unusual perspectives on societal debacles and tragic injustices. A righteous, stupendously involving novel about the personal toll of failed political movements and the perplexing obstacles to doing good. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling Lethem will tour the country with this provocative novel in sync with numerous media appearances and lots of press coverage, all supported by print and online advertising. --Donna Seaman
Lethem structures Dissident Gardens as a series of broadly chronological episodes, moving deftly from one consciousness to another, making the novel an extended family affair over three generations. The downside to this episodic approach to such a large-scale story is that we don’t get the sense of continuous immersion in the life of any one character. Dissident Gardens is—in a beautiful and unsettling way—a deeply agnostic novel, only briefly tolerant of any one parent or child’s inner Sturm und Drang. The point is the dissonance, the way in which one life, one ideology, one voice, never quite succeeds at crowding the others out—partly as a result of time and mortality, and partly because ideologues never stop being fallible human beings. The novel achieves a kind of hard-won grace and equanimity that none of its characters could imagine. —Jess Row
Top customer reviews
And then there's the content: Lethem's characterizations strike me as more shallow and one-dimensional than real, and I grew up in that culture in the 50s and 60s. It's fine to write critically of people blinded by their own ideology, but Lethem paints with a pretty broad stroke. You won't find any social crusaders here with the brains to adapt to changing times and still be good people whose actions benefit the world. Maybe it's not a total hatchet job —after all, his characters could all very well have existed —but the overall effect is of a negative, one-sided historical view.