Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel is a sweeping story of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York during the twentieth century. Many novels of this sort take a military/historical view beginning with the disillusionment of the Lost Generation and continuing through the manifestations of evil during and after WWII. It’s even spawned its own subgenre: the coming-of-age-between-the-wars story. Gilmore takes a different tack. Her story uses the rapid evolution of technology between the 1920s and 1960s as a metaphor for the Americanization of the immigrant characters. Each character and each generation assimilates to different degrees and Gilmore’s novel probes the choices assimilation requires and the benefits and drawbacks of these choices.
The story follows three characters who came to New York City as children. Joseph is a door-to-door salesman who manages to invent the first 2-in-1 cleaning product. Seymour joins the Jewish mafia to finance his dream of becoming a Broadway producer. And Frances Gold, the ugly duckling, recognizes the limitless future and rides the crest of newfangled technology into every living room in America.
Gilmore’s narrative leaps effortlessly backward and forward in time and from character to character. Despite its sweep, the story never drags nor bogs down in historical detail. She well captures the struggles of the Depression and the excitement of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, as well as the more minute tragedies and joys of family life. Golden Country is written with great wit and insight. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys family sagas or literary fiction.