This entertaining and assured debut novel about a utopian summer camp and its charismatic leader asks smart questions about good intentions gone terribly wrong.
Framed by the oil shale bust and the real estate boom, by protests against Reagan and against the Gulf War, The Optimistic Decade takes us into the lives of five unforgettable characters and is a sweeping novel about idealism, love, class, and a piece of land that changes everyone who lives on it.
There is Caleb Silver, the beloved founder of the back-to-the-land camp Llamalo, who is determined to teach others to live simply. There are the ranchers, Don and his son, Donnie, who gave up their land to Caleb and who now want it back. There is Rebecca Silver, determined to become an activist like her father and undone by the spell of both Llamalo and new love; and there is David, a teenager who has turned Llamalo into his personal religion.
Heather Abel’s novel is a brilliant exploration of the bloom and fade of idealism and how it forever changes one’s life.
“Politics was aesthetics, and everything was aesthetics, really, if you thought about it. A man in a turban and white tunic glided by on roller skates. A woman in a wheelchair held the leashes of two dogs that pulled her along the path, American flags waving from the back of her chair. There were bikinied women swaying back and forth on Rollerblades. Teenagers on lowriders eating cones of soft-serve while biking. Men biking while holding boom boxes. A girl like a statue on a skateboard, carrying a Coke can which held a single bird-of-paradise stalk . Rebecca explained at length why the supposed literary canon wasn’t actually canonical. The world might end if she stopped talking, she would talk on and on for the preservation of the world, as all the world’s peoples rolled by, oblivious to their salvation, just hours before the war started.“
Political activism and protest is near to my heart; I consider myself a Revolutionist. That’s what this debut novel is: revolutionary in the political sense, an examination of youthful idealism versus the cold hard reality that things don’t change for the good so easily.
On a word-by-word, line-by-line basis, this is one of the most exquisite novels I’ve read thus far this year. The English language is clay in this author’s hands (see the quoted passage above). She successful conveys simple and complex emotions and ideas, never phoning it in or caving under the pressures of writing a freshman effort. This long and winding tale of a summer camp in the Colorado mountains has the gravitas and staying power of a literary veteran’s work.
And though this novel is very setting-specific — it takes place in summer 1990, just before the Gulf War — it is incredibly universal, and it is in that lies this author’s greatest strength: her tale of young adults wanting to hold onto various meccas — both physical and metaphorical — is a mirror. In it I saw myself, and I’m sure other readers will, too.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the ARC. This book releases on May 1, 2018.
Colorado desert + political idealism + coming of age + hippie summer camp = a wonderfully unique story that anyone who has ever tried to change the world will enjoy. I adore the concept of all of us having an metaphorical optimistic decade.....I definitely feel like mine is over, but I remember it fondly anyway 😉
This is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. It’s about all sorts of interesting and complex ideas (failed utopia, 80s oil boom and bust, radicalism and its discontents) yet somehow written in incredibly tender and funny and lovely prose. The characters are flawed and so loveable, and I found myself laughing at their ridiculousness, worried over their mistakes, and tearing up at how vulnerable they were because of all their desires- for love, power, land, and each other.
ummm... okay. so, my feelings about this novel seem to be running counter to the majority. while i appreciated abel's writing, the story just didn't work for me. i found the characters didn't develop well enough, and there was a depth to it all that felt lacking. i am drawn to stories about communal living, and cults. generally, with these types of novels, levels of emotion and charisma of the characters run higher, are palpable. i just didn't feel any of these traits coming through the story. i can read a novel of this length in a couple of days. it took me 12 days to get through this one, and i really felt it dragging. i had hoped to like this story so much more than i did - the premise appealed to me so strongly. sorry!!
I know. I know. You are looking at the early reviews of this book on this page, and most of them are overwhelmingly positive. And then here I come, the Naysayer, the Grump, the Whiny Whiner Who Whines. . .
And I get it. From an objective standpoint, I can see what people liked about The Optimistic Decade. For one thing, it was well written, maybe even exceptionally so, considering this is an author’s debut novel.
The camp landscape descriptions were absolutely on point. And I even think that the writer accomplished the ambitious goal that she likely had in her mind, when she set out to write this novel. That goal was (I suspect) to establish (through the tale of one very unique summer camp’s decade of history, a timeline that hopped, skipped and jumped, across three presidents, about 15 years -- from the mid 70’s to the early 90’s-- and four or five main characters) the notion that, regardless of our social standing and political views, all of us will inevitably go through a period in our lives when we are sublimely hopeful in our belief that we can “matter” to this world. Unfortunately, that belief will, at some point in our existence, ultimately be, at least somewhat, shattered, thus causing us to re-evaluate our identity and place in society at large.
Yet, all that being said . . . here’s the thing: I personally, just didn’t enjoy reading this book. I found it to be a chore. In fact, about 150 pages into reading The Optimistic Decade, I stopped the book completely, read an entire book that was actually longer than The Optimistic Decade, gave that book a five-star review on Goodreads, and reluctantly came back to finish this one.
One of the reasons this novel didn’t work for me, I think, was that I just wasn’t interested, or, to be honest, all that knowledgeable, about the time-period in which it took place, at least from the solely political viewpoint from which it was situated . . . My own “optimistic decade” having taken place a couple decades later.
Do I guiltily enjoy some 80’s music, and the occasional John Hughes movie? Sure. Am I at all conversant in the Exxon Valdez crisis or the ins and outs of the Persian Gulf War? Not in the least. And I’m not ashamed to admit that either.
Beyond the political backdrop of the story, I found that I was unable to relate to any of the novel’s main characters . . . three-dimensional and well-developed, though they might have been. The female protagonist’s muckraking father? A selfish, egotistical, man-child, willing to put his own ego ahead of his family’s happiness and the livelihood of the many people he employs. Donnie? An uneducated, Anti-Semitic asshole, who suffers from toxic masculinity and a crippling sense of entitlement.
Bored, lazy, naïve hippie, born ten-years too late, David; and uptight, virginal, intellectual snob, activist Rebecca fare slightly better in the story. Each of these characters, on their own, may even have had the opportunity to evolve into much more likeable characters, were it not for the odious Caleb and the If It Existed in Real Life, It Would Probably Be The Subject of A Massive Class Action Lawsuit And Numerous Arrests Camp Llamalo.
I think my biggest problem with The Optimistic Decade is that Caleb is initially treated as a “visionary,” and later, even when his flaws are exposed, as a “generally good guy.” After all, Caleb founded and runs, Llamalo, a camp that the author and its inhabitants all seem to think is “live-changing” and “awesome,” but to me seems like “a cult” and “has way too many similarities to a Charles Manson Family-type situation” to be an at all healthy experience for any human being.
Is Caleb revered by the campers and counselors at Llamalo as a godlike character? Yup! Is the camp situated in the middle of nowhere, and its inhabitants practically forbidden from contacting the outside world, or enjoying the comforts of modern technology, which would undoubtedly remind them of the truly effed up situation in which they are currently trapped? Uh-huh. Is minimum hygiene practiced, such that everyone on the campground showers maybe once a week, foregoes any kind of shaving, rarely changes clothing, and is regularly stinky and covered with dirt? You bet! Despite all this generalized nastiness among the camp population, does Lord Caleb regularly select/ almost force the “hottest” girl in the camp to come to his yurt at night and sleep with him? Ab-so-friggin-lutely.
I’m sorry. But I feel like a major requirement for enjoying The Optimistic Decade was that I root for Caleb, and praise Llamalo for getting Rebecca laid, and causing her to question her dedication to political causes, and I just couldn’t do it.
As for the novel’s ending, after all the build up regarding the challenge to Caleb’s right to the land on which the camp was run, and the Big Secret that Rebecca’s family was keeping from her all summer, it all (to me anyway) ramped up to a rather hastily added-on conclusion, which was then rushed into a tidy wrap-up, in an a-bit-too-pat epilogue type chapter.
In short, while I commend The Optimistic Decade for its impressive writing style, ambitious theme, and well-developed, if seriously flawed, main characters, none of these attributes ultimately resulted in an enjoyable read for me, personally.
This book was aiite. It almost reminded me exactly of The Interestings, which I finished not too long ago and enjoyed quite a bit (I actually read that one feverishly, on a long 11 hour plane ride, and closed my Kindle with my eyes sore and my head aching from a book hangover). Anyway, spoiler alert, I did not like this book nearly as much as The Interestings. I'm not sure if it's because: 1) most of the book was set in rural Colorado, deliberately positioned in the middle of nowhere. Camping? Gross. 2) the characters felt very cold and I felt detached from the plot. I dislike the critique of characters being "unlikeable", but I really did find all the characters unlikeable and most importantly, I didn't care for any of them. The stakes felt low to me, because I just didn't have any investment in anybody. That being said, the last 20% of so of the book was the most interesting and well-thought out. I like what the author was trying to explore with the concept of a summer camp isolated from any political action or concern and this cult-like figure who rebels against society by isolating himself, acknowledging that though this is a privileged way to live, each individual's action matters and he's making a political statement by his lifestyle alone. And I appreciated Rebecca's formerly optimistic leftist parents Georgia and Ira (is it a coincidence that they share the same name with the couple of Yo La Tengo???) and their disillusionment with protest and activism. I think it makes for interesting discussion questions, especially in this Trump era: what's the point of getting involved and resisting if everything sucks and will probably continue to suck? Do we make a difference at all? Can we ever make a difference? How do you live your best life? Does this book have a conclusion? Sort of, because the last scene sort of made my heart jump with joy. Fight the power!
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my free copy of THE OPTIMISTIC DECADE -
A beautifully written debut that’s nebulous, contemplative, complex, and character-driven. This is a sharply comedic coming-of-age story about idealists who want to make the world a better place.
In the remote, high Colorado Desert we follow a cast of characters staying at Llamalo, a utopian summer camp. This includes Rebecca, a college student wrestling with doing what’s noble versus what’s evident, David, a 17-year-old who has spent years at Llamalo and hopes to live there permanently one day, Caleb, the charismatic leader of the camp, and father and son, Don and Donnie, who were the original owners. The story takes place in the 1990s with flashbacks to the 1980s and we follow each characters’ point of view. Topics are covered such as political activism, idealism, flawed leadership, and the spectrum of love.
Set during the Reagan and Bush administrations, Abel does a brilliant job at showing the sometime futile challenge of confronting injustice with idealism. The characters are well developed, inordinate, but interesting, and easy to picture via their perception of the world, their hopes, and fears. I recommend checking out this coming-of-age love story with a philosophical assessment of idealism in a utopian refuge.
Set in the American West in the 1990s, this is a look at idealism, activism, and the feeling that you may not really be making a difference in the world. It’s been compared to The Interestings a lot, and I can see why people would make that comparison. I felt, however, that story was somewhat unfocused and that simplifying it may have made this a better book.
This is a brilliant and skillful debut novel. Its intimately developed and humane characters, and ageless themes (youth and loss, false dichotemies, and flawed leaders, among others) allow a piece set in the 1980s to transcent its period and feel startlingly relvant in 2018. Heather Abel's writting style is compelling and fluid, and she speaks to the reader in an accessible yet sophisticated manner. I eagerly await more from this promising author.
This coming of age story has an unusual setting, interesting characters and skillful writing. A ranch for young campers in a hot, dry area of the Colorado mountains is almost a living character. The shy, inexperienced 19 year old camper who finds love is believably portrayed. The charismatic owner could be a cult figure. The political protests of the Reagan and Bush era add depth to the story. High school students who read adult fiction should relish this novel.
An amazing book. Just what I needed to read lately. One of the best books I have read in years. I loved the quirky family and strong sense of place. As a SOCAL native myself, I enjoyed the references to Santa Monica and the Southwest. A must read for anyone.
THE book for our crazy times. It grapples seriously with the question: how do you lead a moral life in a world full of lies and cynicism? The author doesn't give in to despair. Nor does she sugarcoat. The characters are real, complex, flawed. I miss them already.
“The Optimistic Decade” tells the story of a high plateau summer camp run as a kind of eco/spiritual Outward Bound. The book follows a number of characters: - the camp director with the crazy idea to start the camp, - a returning camper who realizes he want to be a part of the camp as his career, - an idealistic new camp counselor, an activist student, - the activist’s father, a failing radical newspaper publisher, - the original owner of the land where the camp stands - his son, a troubled young man making unlikely plans to take the land back - various others, including funders, parents, current and former campers.
The book is written with chapters telling the story of the camp through different times, from the original creation of the camp through a current-day story I listened to the audiobook version and found myself enjoying the descriptions of the camp and the land, but not really getting into the plot. I found it much like following a TV show through a few episodes, where the bad guys and the good guys are all kinda wimpy. Good production values, but the story felt too familiar, and with no one to root for. I was expecting something different.
Warning: this review contains some mild spoilers This story mostly takes place in the early 1990s, with some flashbacks to the 80s. Rebecca Silver has been raised by activist parents who run a left-wing newspaper. Her deep desires are to please them and to be like them. An excellent student, Rebecca is looking forward to working for her parents the summer after her first year of college. They surprise her by insisting, instead, that she spend her summer as a counselor at a nature camp in Colorado, Llamalo. At Llamalo, she becomes reacquainted with a childhood friend, David. To say that Rebecca and David are naïve for their age is an understatement. They tentatively fall in love with each other, but don't know how to act, either romantically or sexually. Just as Rebecca is infatuated with her parents, David is infatuated with Llamalo and its founder Caleb (a relative of Rebecca's). Caleb is very charismatic and very passionate about his camp, but he has his own hidden insecuritie. And the founding story of Llamalo didn't happen exactly the way he likes to tell it. The land where Llamalo is situated was once a ranch owned by his employee, Don - and Don's son Donnie wants it back. There wasn't enough drama in this story for me; not really that much seemed to be at stake. Donnie wants the ranch back, and he seems kind of dangerous at first, but he ends up being pretty easily defanged. The secret Caleb's keeping isn't really so terrible, either. Everybody is nice and well-meaning, and they definitely screw up, but there's never enough suspense or danger to keep you turning the pages until late into the night. Like my reviews? Check out my blog at http://www.kathrynbashaar.com/blog/ Author of The Saint's Mistress: https://www.bing.com/search?q=amazon....
This one just never really grabbed me, I'm sorry to say, part of it because of the amount of young adult discovering their sexuality and the use of thee "F" word. I'm not really a prude, but it just hit me wrong.
When Caleb stumbles upon a tough and beautiful ranch in Colorado, he knows it’s the perfect place to build the idealistic camp he’s been dreaming of. He twists the truth to buy the land, but along the way he constructs a new origin story for how the camp--which he calls Llamalo--came to be. In 1990, teenage Rebecca--raised on the strident leftism of her parents and their political newspaper--attends Llamalo, reuniting with a former crush, David, and discovering a genuine affinity for Caleb’s charismatic, ritualistic, back-to-the-land ethos. David himself sees his future as involving permanent residency at Llamalo, with Caleb as a kind of mentor; Caleb, however, has other plans. When old lies come back to haunt Caleb, the very existence of Llamalo is threatened. All those who love it, and who live according to optimistic ideals, must decide how far hope will go in a world that seems hell-bent on injustice.
Rebecca’s father claims everyone gets one “optimistic decade” in which to believe that their efforts to improve the world will make a difference before they accept that those efforts are pointless. Though optimism is crushed brutally in these pages, Abel provides glimmers of hope for Caleb, Rebecca, and the rest--even if it seems that nothing matters, they can still act as if it does; and maybe, by some miracle, it will.
***Review originally written for the City Book Review. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.***
I’m vacillating between 3 and 4 here. It was a good book, well-written, but I found it a bit boring and self-indulgent. I’m also grumpy and self-isolating because of coronavirus (and can’t fathom why Caleb would want to self-isolate *willingly*), so take this all with a grain of salt.
I honestly don’t even know where to begin with this book. It’s god awful. I wanted so badly to like it just like I know this book wanted to be good, but it severely misses the mark.
Everything about the book is just so trite. Characters are cookie-cutter, rationales and motivation are thin, she tells more than shows and everything is dialed up to the extreme. I get that Heather Abel wanted to write a book about idealism and specifically the adolescent ideal (even the most dim-witted person could gather this from the way Heather bashes the reader over the head with examples of this), but to do that effectively you still need to have some kind of nuance and non-idealism to your characters and world. I did like the book at some parts, but those were the parts where she got specific and wasn’t dealing in the morass of tropeyness (describing the camp, the love story at parts, the 80’s/90’s politics).
Generality is her big problem here. The third-person perspective and POV shifts really create a clinical distance from the story. The camp was supposedly great, because it was mentioned as being great every other page, but it was never really SHOWN as being great. You might argue that’s part of showing the adolescent ideal (the shellacking of everything into more than what it is), but it doesn’t quite translate to novel storytelling where things need to be more than just ideals. It makes things feel too nebulous and ungrounded. She’s too distant from the world/heart of her novel; I never felt like she “became” her characters. Instead she writes them in a way that feels judgmental and condescending, which creates an impediment for the reader to really connect with her world. If you’re going to write about kids and their mistakes you have to develop those mistakes as seeming like the right decisions. It’s like an atheist writing about Catholicism. I think this could’ve been avoided had she adopted the 1st person and either stuck to one perspective or switched perspectives through the channels of 1st person.
This really could’ve been a great book about the futility of activism and the hypocrisy of liberalism, but unfortunately Heather just doesn’t possess the chops to write that kind of story. Instead she deals in broad strokes and generalities and rests on the familiar without really subverting too much. Right off the bat she bungles the inciting incident of the novel (Rebecca, a young liberal trying hard to prove her worth as an adult is completely against going to a childish summer camp, but she makes a strident 180 on the next page) and this flimsy plotting continues all throughout the book (at one point a jaded benefactor who refuses to fund said summer camp changes his mind in the blink of a paragraph). These aren’t just little moments either these are the BIG pivotal moments that the novel hinges on and if it weren’t for them the rest of the book wouldn’t exist—and Heather just squanders them all. I think for her next work she should stick to nonfiction. She’s a great expository writer, but the essential tenets of a good novel—plot progression, characterization, thematic weaving—she just does not have a grasp on, nor the ability to subvert them. Being able to describe sagebrush does not a good novelist make.
This is a very complex novel with interconnecting themes. It raises many questions about the relationships between self, environment, and community, how we learn to live meaningful, fulfilling lives as adults, and how we can find a balance between optimism and realism -- rather than becoming bitter and cynical. Themes about class, religion, Jewish identity, and anti-Semitism are also skillfully interwoven into the story. The characters are extremely well-developed, from the major to the minor characters (especially Rebecca's parents). The book was painful to read at times, because as a reader and observer, the faults of all of the characters are so glaring.
In addition to the obvious themes, I finished this book thinking at length about how adults have more power than we often realize in shaping and guiding the next generations, and about the meaning of true leadership and support. Caleb and Rebecca's parents had many missed opportunities, despite the best of intentions. Their lack of insight, honesty, introspection, and true humility wreaked havoc on the young people who could have benefited from their basic decency and altruism.
I understand the yearning for simplicity and beauty, especially in these fast-paced and troubling times. I also understand the yearning for community, and a place where one is accepted unconditionally. I'm grateful for Abel's exploration of all of these themes, and for giving me the time and space to reflect on them.
UPDATE: After reading the essay at the end of this book - which is kind of amazing - I have to give this 4.5 stars. Also found this quote that I had marked. What the hell, let's give it 5.
"All around them, children sang of a sad train commuter who, lacking appropriate fare, was never allowed to disembark. Why didn't his wife slip a nickel into the sandwiches she dutifully brought him each day? Rebecca had wondered this as a child, truly distraught at the lack of realism or strategy."
I loved the quirky setting, every character, and the push/pull of earnest political fervor.
I could not wait to get back to this book and I'm sorry it's over but, if it had to end, the ending was perfect.
Thank you Algonquin Books for gifting me a copy of this book. Below is my honest review, and all opinions are my own.
I rate this book a 4 out 5 Stars.
This was an artfully written coming of age story, and it was a fantastic way to kick off my Summer reading. Llamalo was essentially a hippie summer camp in Colorado. I loved the characters in this book, they each brought a uniqueness to the story, and were relatable, charismatic, and loveable. I found Caleb to be funny, and wise beyond his years, a good guy to be mentoring others. Out of all of them though, David was my favorite. He was just so sweet and reminiscent of people I knew when I was a young adult.
I enjoyed the political undertones of this book, it wasn't in your face, and shoved down your thought. It was just simply what was going on in the outside world, and how it affected this group of people (well everyone actually). "The Optimistic Decade" travels through the Regan and Bush Sr. Era, it covers idealism, political activism, and the ideological dreamers, who wanted to make changes. It was important than, and it's more important in the world we live in now. I really just enjoyed this book, it's unlike anything I typically read and I am so grateful it was sent to me by Algonquin. I love finding new books to fall in love with, and new Authors to follow.
If you’re looking for a timely novel, set in the high desert of Colorado, with fully realized characters who you’ll love then hate then love again, check out The Optimistic Decade. There's a good dose of cult/communal living, contemplation of love in its many forms, and a sense of youthful urgency that feels 100% authentic. The writing is also beautiful line by line, especially when Abel describes the desert/mountains/ranch/ditch/river/scrublands.
a young woman whose parents run an ultra-left wing activist newspaper is sent to campfor the summer. the camp is her cousin's. it is non-traditional, no electricity, cabins or roofs. her childhood friend, who is a geek at school, but is sexy at camp and she have her first sexual awakenings. everyone is political and the stories intertwine with the hostility of the man who owned the land before and is out to reclaim it. this is a book for any liberal, former liberal,old hippie, young person trying to fit their values to the actual world.
It is difficult to describe this book. It is a coming-of-age story (sort of), a story about love in all its many forms (sort of), and a story of hope even during times of despair (sort of). It is not always clear where the author is going with this story and the characters are quirky but very human. Perhaps, it is best described as a story of idealism, which most of us have in our 20s, but which often erodes as we get older and get worn down by reality and practicality; but there is always another generation of idealists to take our place, to race our hopes, and, perhaps, to create another "optimistic decade."
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel is a literary fiction read that follows a cast of characters at Llamalo, a utopian summer camp out in the Rocky Mountains. Rebecca, a social-conscious college student, has been shipped off to be a counselor instead of getting to work on her family's paper. David, a seventeen year old nobody, has been coming to Llamalo for years, and hopes to move there permanently when he turns eighteen. Caleb, leader of the camp, is trying to maintain order and make everyone feel the same way he does about Llamalo and what it stands for. Don and Donnie, father and son duo and original owners of the land, are struggling with what their ranch has become and how to do something about it.
This books is told through the points of view of all these characters. It takes place throughout the Eighties (as flashbacks) and Nineties (as present day) through the Reagan and Bush eras. The flashbacks take the reader back to times like when David and Rebecca were kids, and when Caleb first discovered Llamalo, helping the reader to understand why things are they way they are at present in the story.
The Optimistic Decade was very atmospheric and character driven. Not a lot happens, but in this book that works well. I felt transported right into Llamalo, with its hot sun, gorgeous views, and minimalist lifestyle. I really loved both Rebecca and David as characters, and getting to see them each grow individually, as well as build their relationship with one another. I also loved a lot of the minor characters, including Suze and Georgia.
It covers a lot of challenging and thoughtful topics, including idealism, flawed leadership, and political activism. The characters in the story think a lot about whether or not their actions make a difference, and there are many eye opening moments for each of them. The writing was beautiful and the novel was well constructed. Overall I really enjoyed this novel, but I was left still wanting something more when it was all said and done.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Thanks so much to Algonquin Books for sending me an advanced copy of this perfect summer read!