Red White and Blue by Susan Isaacs
(Harper Collins, $25, PG) ISBN 0-06-017608-3
***
I've been a Susan Isaacs fan for years. For close to two decades she has earned accolades for creating realistic but witty characters while utilizing equal doses of humor and poignancy in her stories. I'm sorry to report, however, that Red White and Blue was a disappointing read. In trying to make a statement about the unique quality of Americans, she sacrifices the integrity of the story.

The novel has two distinct parts that do not mesh well together. A brief prologue introduces the reader to the nominal hero and heroine. Charlie Blair is a Wyoming native, a would-be rancher who is actually an FBI agent. He is recruited to go undercover as "Darrell Frederickson" and infiltrate the white-supremacist group Wrath, which is suspected of bombing a video store owned by a Jewish proprietor. Lauren Miller is a Jewish journalist who has traveled from New York to Wyoming to write a story about the bombing. As the omniscient narrator explains, Charlie and Lauren share more than a destination; they have a common heritage. They are actually third-cousins who have a mutual great-great-grandparent. So how did these two characters arrive at the same point through such divergent paths?

Before you can say "flashback," the reader leaves Charlie and Lauren, not to be reunited with them until halfway through the book. Instead, the story turns its focus to Dora Schottland, a young, pregnant Jewish immigrant who marries a loser named Herschel in 1899 and, six months later, passes off her newborn son as "premature." For the next 200 pages, the reader goes through a whirlwind tour spanning 100 years of American history and including eight major and countless minor characters. Dora's son ends up in Wyoming, while the daughter she conceives with Herschel remains in New York. There are births, deaths, betrayals, infidelities, true love and tragedies, but because there are so many characters the reader barely gets a chance to know them or identify with them before poof! the book has moved on to the next generation. The smugly omniscient narrator keeps the reader even further at a distance from the characters. The result is a background profile of Charlie and Lauren's ancestors that feels both too long and too sketchy at the same time.

Finally, the novel rejoins Charlie and Lauren. Unlucky in love, Lauren is stunned to find the man of her dreams on a Wyoming street. But before she can give her fantasies full reign, she learns in the next minute that he is a follower of Vern Ostergard, the hate-filled, paranoid leader of Wrath. How could her judgement have been so wrong as to fall in love at first sight with a white supremacist named Darrell? After several encounters, Lauren begins to believe that Darrell/Charlie is more than he appears to be, but danger and uncertainty remain about their future together.

If the entire novel had consisted of Charlie and Lauren's story, I probably would have given Red White and Blue a stronger recommendation. Charlie, especially, is an impressive character, well-intentioned but flawed, who has been denied his ranching heritage by his selfish father. He becomes an FBI agent because "if he couldn't live the life he had planned, at least he could live a life that was worth something." Lauren comes off as a bit of a spoiled princess, but you have to admire her guts and ingenuity as she pieces together the mystery of Charlie's real identity and the truth behind Wrath.

But the entire first-half flashback left me cold. If Ms. Isaacs is trying to make a point about the fascinating range of possibilities available to new Americans at the dawn of the 20th century and the wonders of our melting pot, she does so in a cumbersome way. It was too easy to put the book down, and as an esteemed fellow reviewer has noted, a book that can easily be put aside and picked up later is not a 4-heart read.

In the book's defense I must admit that, even during the flashback, the reader is treated to Ms. Isaac's witty and perceptive writing style. One of my favorite passages involves Lauren's mother, Barbara, a spinster teacher who attends a Jewish singles weekend in the Catskills with a seductive fellow teacher:

Barbara noticed that Nicki's chirpy voice rose at the end of many of her sentences, thus making her listeners feel something wonderful was about to be uttered. It endowed each subsequent sentence with a magic it never merited.

While the writing is strong throughout the novel, the author's trademark ability to create characters the reader can personally involve herself with is absent through the first half. If you want vintage Susan Isaacs, try her first two novels, Compromising Positions and Close Relations, or some of her later work notably Magic Hour andAfter All These Years. Red White and Blue is an interesting examination of the American immigrant experience, but it falls short of being an emotionally rewarding novel.

--Susan Scribner


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