Any parental drama we encountered in our teenage years is nothing compared to the dueling mother-daughter relationship at the center of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, Dissident Gardens. Miriam is a rebellious teen growing up in Queens; her mother, Rose, is a forceful Communist given to shoving her daughter’s head into the oven to make a point.


The relationship sounds exhausting, and Lethem’s parade of characters—annoying cousin Lenny, Miriam’s searching son Sergius—are also, um, “big personalities”.

Yet each is animated so expertly and thoroughly that the cumulative effect is a propulsive energy that propels the plot forward.

The various chips on this family’s progressively sloping shoulders (the book spans three generations) may not necessarily endear them to readers, but so what? It’s a spectacle, and one that works well on the page.

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, published by Doubleday

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