In Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem presents 20th-century New York in a sweeping tale of strong women, ideals and disappointments. Rose Zimmer – a Jewish Communist, a community activist, a mother and the lover of a black policeman – is not your stereotypical 1950s suburban housewife. Her daughter Miriam runs to Greenwich Village and embraces a 1970s hippie lifestyle with her husband Tommy, an Irish folk artist, who is never the same after his first album receives a crushing review.
Male characters’ stories wind through Rose and Miriam’s. Cicero Lookins, the son of Rose’s policeman lover and an embittered college professor; Sergius, Miriam and Tommy’s son; and Lenny Angrush, Rose’s nephew, are all influenced, for good and bad, by the two women.
Dissident Gardens is a multilayered story of peoples’ lives, heavily influenced by the background of political and world events. The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time across the decades, and multiple characters share their stories. This makes it a challenging read and a very self-consciously literary novel. Lethem’s trademark wit and satire are present, and his language is fresh, but at points it feels as though the author’s linguistic ambitions overreach his responsibility to his characters and story. Rose is described as a toad in the garden and at the same time as a mountain. On the same page we read that: “when Rose laughed up her sleeve, the sleeve was the Twentieth Century. You were living in her sleeve.”
Where Lethem is truly successful, it is in bringing out the politics and events of the twentieth century through the everyday lives of his characters, but this is not his most readable or satisfying novel to date.