Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel, Golden Country, is a richly woven tapestry of immigrant life in the first half of the 20th century. Its disappointments and rewards lie in the breadth of its goal: to entwine the stories of three different immigrant families over the course of fifty years, and then to untangle the conventions and paradoxes of Jewish American identity. For a first novel, ambitious indeed.
The book opens in the late 1950s with Joseph and Esther Brodsky discussing the merits of the marriage of their daughter Miriam to David Bloom, a theater producer. The chapter resounds with all of the humor and pathos of a scene from Fiddler on the Roof or Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite—apropos, given that Broadway figures heavily into the narrative. Before David’s father made it in the theater he ran hooch for the mob, which isn’t the best prospect for a father-in-law. But despite Joseph’s anxieties about the marriage and the Blooms’ erstwhile ties to the mob, his wife insists it’s a good match. True? True.
The Bloom-Brodsky marriage becomes the fulcrum for exploring the many oppositions that run through this novel. The marriage will unite not just two families but two distinct Jewish cultures: the Blooms’ from Western Europe, and the Brodskys’ from Eastern. Beyond this, the story adeptly, if not sometimes a little obviously, contrasts the old and new world, East and West, and assimilation and preservation. Integral here is the tension between Joseph and his brother Solomon; Sol disgraces his family by joining the mafia, and Joe spends his life trying to scour the filth from his family’s name.
But we haven’t even gotten to the third family: two sisters, Pauline and Frances Verdonik reinvent themselves in pursuit of their own particular brand of happiness. Pauline marries Solomon and escapes poverty. Frances, in a flash of inspiration, renames herself Frances Gold and writes herself out of desperate poverty by penning letters in English to relatives of Williamsburg’s Jewish residents scattered across the world, and ultimately falls in love and marries one of her customers.
Much of Gilmore’s narrative focuses on invention, literal and metaphorical. The characters attempt to distance themselves from the artifacts of Europe or from their parents’ provincialism. So Joseph invents Essoil, the first cleaning product miscible in oil and water. Perhaps more impressively Frances Gold’s husband Vladimir Zworykin invents television. These two inventions, along with the Blooms’ Broadway (a place of continuous invention and fantasy), propel the characters on a trajectory of (seemingly inevitable) financial success and independence. And yet, not without discomfort. Gilmore clearly understands the tension inherent in the immigrant experience—the push-pull that compels her characters to embrace America’s promise of transformation while struggling to relinquish the rituals, if not the collective melancholy, of their traditions.
This ambivalence is the heart of Gilmore’s story, as she enthusiastically encourages her characters to wrestle with the question of how it’s possible to be both American and Jewish simultaneously. It’s an engaging problem, one that compromises characters as they renounce one identity for the other. Gilmore contends with it through the entire arc of the narrative, and to her credit never tries to fully answer it. Although each successive generation is no more comfortable with the tension, they are at least more likely to confront it from within the privilege of establishment. The families’ troubles move from persecution and discrimination to happiness and fulfillment. In other words, they get absorbed by the smaller, more intimate—and more ordinary—questions of the mainstream. This, itself, is Gilmore’s testament to the American Dream.
As the concerns of Gilmore’s creations change, so does their language. For the novel’s first two-thirds, much of the dialogue and exposition is hampered by Gilmore’s idea of an immigrant vernacular. This is not so much an accent but rather colloquialisms: the awkward sentence construction that implies translation from Yiddish or Russian, the rhetorical questions (eyes raised to God or lowered in humility, depending on the situation), and the equivocal head nodding and shoulder shrugging. It can be very distracting at times, and its bluntness sometimes adds a comedic element that I don’t think Gilmore necessarily intends, causing her first generation immigrants to lose their individuality and become more caricature than character. Perhaps Gilmore is deliberately trying to illustrate how speech, like any other vestige of the old world, transforms with time. Regardless, by the time we get around to the novel’s final third, we’re given characters—and prose—whose Jewish identity becomes almost incidental in light of their place as Americans.
Gilmore’s goldene medina, or golden country, is both a physical place and an embodiment of persistent ideals: immigrants’ collective strivings for physical security, freedom from persecution, and financial success. Embedded in the narrative’s presumption of the American dream—the streets paved with gold, prosperity like golden apples just right for the picking—is a reality configured slightly differently, where fortune is as contingent on caprice and coincidence as it is on toil and perseverance. While the first-generation immigrants suffer displacement from their homeland and discrimination in their new one, and generally struggle to simply put food on the table, their children’s success is dependent on equal parts moxy and dumb luck. Like Lana Turner’s purported discovery at Schwab’s drugstore, Gilmore’s characters remind us of the staggering influence of chance in the making of history.
Because Gilmore’s America is mythic in proportion—from Irving Berlin and Broadway to Essoil and television—her characters and stories become somewhat removed from the ordinary. Golden Country is equally concerned with individual people and the larger context surrounding them. A birthdate coincides with the illumination of the Empire State Building; Miriam and David’s fated introduction occurs at the 1939 World’s Fair (the same event where both Essoil and television are premiered). Allowing her characters to strive for their dreams against a backdrop of grand American narratives and people, Gilmore expands the consequences of both their successes and failures.
She also, perhaps, diminishes their impact. Structuring the narrative in such “broad ways,” while reducing the temptation of ghettoizing her story as a parochial Jewish fable, sacrifices a certain subtlety in her characterization. In a book of this sort one longs for moving characters and stories, but often tragedies and triumphs felt flat. What does resonate is the characters’ situation in the panorama of American history. As Joseph says early on, his Irving Berlin is all about being American, admiring and honoring “my home sweet home.” Like Berlin, Gilmore creates a story that is about a certain vision of America, an homage to its beauty, majesty, and the potential for greatness.
Although I would have liked to see more detail and subtlety in Gilmore’s characters, her ability to suspend multiple generations of three families over fifty years in only three hundred pages is a testament to her skill and energy. Not without its faults, Golden Country is a good read and a great start from a promising new writer.
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