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The Optimistic Decade

Narrated by: Tanya Eby
Length: 11 hrs and 35 mins
4 out of 5 stars (8 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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 son Donnie, who gave up their land to Caleb, having run out of options after Exxon came and went and left them bankrupt. There is Rebecca Silver, determined to become an activist like her father and undone by the spell of Llamalo and new love; and there is David, a teenager who has turned Llamalo into his personal religion. But situated on a plateau in the heart of the Rockies, Llamalo proves that it might outlast anyone's heady plans for it, from the earliest Native American settlers to the latest lovers of the land. 

Like Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, Heather Abel's novel is a brilliant exploration of the bloom and fade of idealism and how it forever changes one's life. Or so we think.

©2018 Heather Abel (P)2018 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

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  • David
  • STAMFORD, CT, United States
  • 06-09-18

For Camp and Country

Summer camp provides the setting for this busy novel. The central tensions in the book are between affluent kids going back to the land at Llamalo, a quasi-wilderness camp in Colorado ranch country, and the struggling locals whose jobs were lost when the mining company (Exxon!) left town. There’s Caleb, the founder of Llamalo, trying to handle locals Don and Donny, whose ancestors settled the area and who lost their land to Caleb following the shutdown of a mining project. Then there’s Rachel from Berkeley, whose father owns a famous left-wing weekly, and her lifelong crush David, who wants to leave school to live at Llamalo year-round.

The characters tend to lie, to others but mostly to themselves. Caleb sees himself as a heroic land preservationist, but he shamelessly manipulates people. Rachel sees herself as a left-wing revolutionary, but she is still Daddy’s girl. The portrait of Llamalo itself is quite appealing. As the reader, I wanted to visit there myself.

The book has a serious weakness. In the first half, the characters tend to be one-dimensional, closer to stereotypes than to real people. That is bad enough, but the Jewish characters in particular come off as cartoonish—especially the Jewish liberals like Rachel and her father. This changes as the book progresses and the characters deepen, but it left a bad taste. The book is nowhere near as subtle as Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings,” another novel about affluent teenagers finding themselves at summer camp.

Having said that, I enjoyed “The Ordinary Decade” and became increasingly engrossed in the characters and the plot. Heather Abel is a talented writer, wrestling with important contemporary issues like class conflict, individualism, environmentalism and the value of protest.

The narrator did a good job, nicely differentiating the many voices.