Set amid the social upheaval of the 1960s, Kohler’s sensitive debut follows a pair of San Francisco siblings struggling to make sense of the roles that have been set out for them.
After their mother’s sudden death, 20-year-old Jeannie and 14-year-old Kip find themselves existentially and practically adrift. Over the course of the next few years, Jeannie trades secretarial school for a waitressing job, meets a nice doctor (a Goldwater supporter), gets pregnant, and marries him, becoming—on paper, at least—the epitome of 1960s domestic success. Meanwhile, Kip, restless and brooding, gets caught trying to rob a supposedly abandoned liquor store. In court, the judge presents him with two options: finish high school or join the military, and in spite of Jeannie and their World War II–veteran father, Kip decides to enlist in the Marine Corps. Kip and Jeannie have at least one thing in common, though: they’re both trapped in lives that don’t quite fit. In San Francisco, Jeannie—always conventional, even prim—becomes enchanted with a young woman involved in the underground anti-war movement. Across an ocean in Vietnam, Kip—overwhelmed by the extent of the violence and ill-suited to the constant humiliation of Marine life—finds himself accused of a horrific military crime. Against the wishes of her conservative in-laws, Jeannie becomes consumed by the case and, in the process, is forced to come to terms with the life she’s built. Told in alternating perspectives, the novel takes a while to hit its stride, and the first sections nearly buckle under the weight of so many sepia-toned '60s clichés. But if it begins as a somewhat expected family period piece, the book progresses into something wholly original: dark, rich, and morally challenging.
A haunting portrait of an era that only gets better as it goes along.