Summary and book reviews of Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Dissident Gardens

A Novel

by Jonathan Lethem

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem X
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2013, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2014, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

1
Two Trials

Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.

Sol Eaglin, Important Communist, had rung her telephone. A "committee" wished to see her; no, they'd be happy, delighted, to come to her home, this evening, after their own conference just across the Gardens—was ten too late? This a command, not a question. Yes, Sol knew how hard Rose labored, what her sleep was worth. He promised they wouldn't stay long.

How did it happen? Easy. Routine, in fact. These things happened every day. You could get exiled from the cause for blowing your nose or blinking at suspicious intervals. Now, after so long, Rose's turn. She'd cracked the kitchen window to hear their approach. Brewed some coffee. Sounds of the Gardens filtered in, smokers, lovers, teenagers sulking in the ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Because Dissident Gardens is epic in terms of its scope and executed vision, there are times when the story takes its own sweet time, caught in elaborate machinations that seem a little too constraining and tight. Lethem’s sprawling canvases have always worked extremely well and they do so here too - only, in some places, one is left to wonder if he isn’t a little too much in love with the sound of his own voice... [It] eventually works because it beautifully illuminates the yawning gap between the noblest of intentions and their actual realization...continued

Full Review (823 words).

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(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Media Reviews

Elle
[This] novel's powerful and polarizing cultural, political, and racial energies are animated by a typically Lethem-esque cast of zanies, communalists, sexual adventurers, innocents, druggies, dreamers, and do-gooders -- cosmopolitans all -- whose lives collide and clash with gut-busting humor, heart, and hubris, which Lethem delivers in his seductively vertiginous prose.

Kirkus Reviews
The setup of this novel is so frequently funny that it reads like homage to classic Philip Roth.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. All together, the cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem's writing, as always, packs a witty punch.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. All together, the cast makes for a heady, swirly mix of fascinating, lonely people. Lethem's writing, as always, packs a witty punch.

Library Journal
Starred Review. [A] stunning new novel...Lethem enthusiasts may find this to be his best yet. Very highly recommended

Booklist
Starred Review. A righteous, stupendously involving novel about the personal toll of failed political movements and the perplexing obstacles to doing good.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Role of Jewish Women in American Communism

While communism might be a dirty word today, its principles held a lot of appeal for the working poor in the United States for much of the 1920s through the 50s. The idea of a "workers' revolution" akin to the Russian October revolution of 1917 didn't seem too far-fetched. The stock market crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression further cemented the popularity of a movement that promised better labor arrangements in general - improved working conditions and equal rights for all. Communism grew to such a strong extent that it soon became a vital part of left-wing American politics.

Religious organizations with their emphasis on "social justice" also found roots in this left-wing movement. Soon, Jewish women played a large part in ...

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