So I had the opportunity through Netgalley to read this book before it is released today, May 1. I promised them a fair review, so here you go.
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel is a book about an extended family of radical American liberals. (We assume the May 1 publication date to be a coincidence). The story centers around Llamalo, a summer camp located in Colorado in a true, honest-to-goodness-tarantula-walking wilderness. The idea is that the campers undergo a transformation when they live stripped of all the vestments of society and culture, something out of Desert Solitaire or Thoreau, both of which are heavily quoted.
Perhaps this book’s strongest feature is its powerful sense of place. Most of the book takes place at Llamalo and Abel truly excels at building the story around the camp and its routines. It reminded me a little bit of what Amor Towles did in A Gentleman in Moscow with the hotel. You know where people are sleeping (hint: outdoors), how they sleep, how their day goes, what projects they are working on, etc. You know when they eat, how they know its time to eat, where they have their gatherings etc.
I went to summer camp and this was all very familiar and comforting to me. Mine was in a much tamer version of wilderness, but the freedom camp gives to young people to spend hours on some project and to go swimming in the river and not have their parents over their shoulder every second–its a twinkle in the eye of life.
The sense of place supports the book throughout, a comfortable and familiar host to what is right and what is wrong with the people who are interacting with it. And lastly, the wilderness is, in theory, immutable and unspoiled, and yet there’s a metaphor here, because we understand that anything that has been touched by a human has been “spoiled” (or changed or impacted or altered) in some way.
The plot develops very well. It certainly is not a fast-paced Dan Brown page-turner, which is fine with me. It is easy to read. At one point, about halfway through the book, I had no idea how we could only be half-way through, but Abel does a nice job mixing in new elements to keep the story moving along to a satisfying conclusion.
The characters are excellent and come from a diverse set of ages and types, which is reflective of Abel’s storytelling skill. You have the aging, doubting radical, his unwavering wife, a teenage boy and a teenage girl coming of age, along with the camp director and a semi-literate Native American (the protagonist). With one exception, I found all these characters to be well-drawn. In particular, the elegant description of Rebecca’s physical sensations as she discovers her sexuality was very effective, along with David’s struggles to fit into the wider world.
The one place I felt the book could be stronger was the development of Donnie, the protagonist. His actions, which are extreme and the result of a long-held grudge, just never rang 100% true to me and I feel like some time inside his head during the development of the story might have created a stronger drama.
The book’s title refers to the idea that everyone in their life has a decade when everything is going great. When they think can change the world. When there are Newtonian physics in play, when you take an action and you get a reaction.
Of course, if there’s a decade where you have this feeling, the darker implication is that it is not something that can last forever. There are seasons to our lives, and not all of them are summer. Human fallibility is our gravity. It can be defied but it cannot be defeated.
Rather than live in dirty, flawed world, the characters–like Abbey and Thoreau–have attempted to reset the board by going to a virgin wilderness, a blank slate free from the surly bonds of human life. But even there, you have an optimistic decade and then you have the other ones. Even mountains have seasons to their lives.
If this makes the book sound hopeless and bleak, that’s a mistake. In the end, we see the characters understanding that living in a flawed world and in our un-optimistic decades is the business of our lives. It’s a paradox. The idea that there are seasons to life is itself timeless.