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The Optimistic Decade

3.31  ·  Rating details ·  764 ratings  ·  141 reviews
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 abo
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published May 1st 2018 by Algonquin Books
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Average rating 3.31  · 
Rating details
 ·  764 ratings  ·  141 reviews

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Cody | CodysBookshelf
Apr 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, netgalley
“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 ...more
mindful.librarian ☀️
Thanks to the publisher for this review copy!

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 😉
Erin White
Feb 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
May 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
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
May 12, 2018 rated it liked it
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? G ...more
Janelle Janson
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
Jerrie (redwritinghood)
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.
John C
Jan 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Helen Fernandez
Jan 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jennifer Mathieu
Jun 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Simply outstanding. What a memorable story - so rich and real. Terrific character development and such a sense of place. Weirdly relevant despite being set in the 80s and 90s. This one stays with you.
Feb 27, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook
“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
Suzan Jackson
I enjoyed this thoughtful novel about different ways to make a difference, set in the early 1990's in western Colorado, after the oil shale bust.

Read my full review and interview with the author:
Kathryn Bashaar
Dec 27, 2018 rated it liked it
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
Jan 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult, older-ya
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.
Margo Littell
Jul 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 cha ...more
Mar 18, 2020 rated it liked it
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.
Jul 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ch ...more
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. ...more
Michelle Nijhuis
May 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully captures the contradictions of a place I lived in for a long time, and still love. Highly recommended.
Tracy (The Pages In-Between)
May 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Corey Farrenkopf
Sep 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
nikkia neil
May 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley
Thanks Algonquin Books and netgalley for this ARC.

The 80's, summer camp, overbearing radial parents, and weird take on the world marching orders makes this a comical coming of age nutter.

Jun 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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
May 06, 2018 rated it liked it
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 anoth ...more
Mandi Schneck
May 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 everyon ...more
Taylor Bush
Jun 05, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2018
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
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I received this book through a Goodreads Giveaway, and I would like to thank the author and Algonquin Books for the free copy.

Heather Abel's The Optimistic Decade transports readers back into the era of Reagan and Bush Sr., showing how a varied cast of characters who are used to challenging corruption and injustice with idealism must deal with the perceived futility of their actions. The story offers insights about ideological exhaustion and jadedness, difference in generations, and how people
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