A long time ago, in our life before children, my husband and I lived in College Park, Maryland, three blocks from a metro station where the green line took us straight into downtown Washington, D.C. I had never lived near a city before, and I fell in love with D.C. The memorials, the museums; the statue gardens, the Tuba Christmas concert; New Years Eve at the reflecting pool, Fourth of July fireworks at the Washington monument; the lighting of the national Christmas tree at the White House, cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial. The Washington Post delivered to our door.
We lived there in the first years of our marriage, and we had a garden where we tended echinacea, columbine, gerbera daisies, shasta daisies, and I grew a few vegetables along with tomatoes, basil, and arugula. We used the arugula in a pasta with a bacon and cream sauce, the basil for pesto every week, and ate the red tomatoes warm off the vine, sliced, salted, and dripping with summer.
It was a good life in D.C., and I miss it. I couldn’t wait to read novels set in the area we spent our rich early years, and I wasn’t disappointed. The books here represent three faces of D.C.: the timeless political drama of Capitol Hill, the transience of contemporary D.C. neighborhoods, and the racial tensions of a 1920s Georgetown.
Novel: Advise and Consent
Author: Allen Drury, US Senate Correspondent 1940s
Setting: Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 1950s
Categories: Pulitzer, Political Fiction
Set during the Cold War as the US and Russia reared against each other on all fronts — when they were racing to get to the moon first, when the US saw communism as evil, when tension was high and trust was low — Advise and Consent is a Washington, D.C.-set drama that follows the confirmation hearings of a controversial secretary of state nominee: controversial because he may be a former member of the Communist party.
Published in 1959 and awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1960, I can imagine that Advise and Consent was a foundational work upon which later D.C. insider literature and TV series were built. Advise and Consent, like House of Cards, Scandal, and other political dramas, exposes the bargaining, gambling, and shady dealings that happen behind the scenes in private rooms in the Capitol, and in the Oval office. Dealings that are never overt, are never plainly spoken, are suggested obliquely through innuendo and sideways dealings, and are almost always at the expense of someone’s integrity.
Because that’s really what Advise and Consent is about. It’s about integrity and how far that may get you, and where it may fall short, and how nearly impossible it is to maintain in politics. It is a bitter irony that those who serve out of a genuine drive to do what’s right for the country cannot do so and also sustain their integrity.
“This is a cruel town,” he said, “when you get on the wrong side of it. A great town and a good town, and a petty town, and a cruel town. And nobody ever knows from day to day which face it is going to put on.”
Like classic films upon which so many contemporary movies are based, Advise and Consent was not novel to me because I’ve seen it done so many times by its successors. However, the subtlety, the lack of sensationalism, and the impossible choices politicians must make — sacrificing principles to accomplish a greater goal — is executed exquisitely in this book. The characters are real, their dramas are relateable, and the book does not ask the reader to take great leaps like modern excessive dramas do. With every decision a character makes, the reader can see the quandry. The reader is there with him asking, well, what can he do? And the answer is never easy.
Novel: You Are One of Them
Author: Elliott Holt, born Washington, D.C.
Setting: Washington, D.C. and Moscow 1980s
Categories: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction
Set against the backdrop of Cleveland Heights, a Washington, D.C. neighborhood during the 1980s, when the US feared of nuclear attack from Russia, You Are One of Them is a story of trust and betrayal, not among nations, but between childhood friends.
Daughter of divorced parents — a neglectful father who abandons her for a new family in his native England, and an anxiety-ridden mother afraid of leaving the house — Sarah Zuckerman befriend Jenny Jones, her new across-the-street all-American neighbor who has just moved to D.C from the wholesome heartland: from Ohio.
Mrs. Jones was always there to ask about our day. She smiled a lot. At first it made me nervous — there was something unsettling about all that grinning — but my mother said that people smiled more in Ohio.
In their girlhood Sarah and Jenny do typical childhood things: play hide and seek in the woods, leave notes for each other in a secret chink in church stones, and write letters to Yuri Andropov, the leader of the USSR, asking for peace.
The story is of the all-American girl whose letter made her famous, whose letter took her to the USSR, and of Sarah, whose idea it had been to write the letters, but who was left behind, who wasn’t the perfect American, and who spends the rest of her life chasing Jenny’s memory.
Though the author is a D.C. native, and much of the first half of the novel takes place in D.C., my favorite scenes were in Russia. The Russian characters, the contrast between D.C and Moscow, and the similarities, were compelling and I could not stop turning pages.
But the best part is Sarah’s ending, when she finally catches Jenny’s ghost and realizes what she’s been holding onto, releases it, grows up, has that epiphinal moment when she becomes her true self — and then stands up for it.
Novel: River Cross My Heart
Author: Breena Clarke, born Washington, D.C.
Setting: Georgetown, Washington, D.C., 1920s
Categories: African American Fiction, Historical Fiction
Set in Georgetown in the 1920s, River, Cross My Heart tells the story of a young swimmer, Johnnie Mae, whose younger sister drowns in the Potomac River in summer — while the white children in Georgetown cool off in the clean, safe, turquoise water of the whites-only pool.
Legends abound that the Potomac River is a widowmaker, a childtaker, and a woman-swallower.
Filled with rich scenes of food and family, the black Georgetown community, and childhood friendships and rivalries, River, Cross My Heart follows the grief, the coming together, and the recovery of the community in the wake of Clara’s death.
One of the things I loved about this book is that it shows this D.C. neighborhood in all the seasons, including the oppressive heat of summer, the spookiness of a graveyard at Halloween, the sharp cold of winter, and the birth of new life in spring.
It’s also a time period I know little about in D.C. history. I reveled experiencing Georgetown as a small Southern town rather than the elite metropolitan neighborhood it is today. There are gardens and laundry lines, feasts with traditional Southern soul food, tensions between white and black, kids being kids, a “witch” woman, and a cast of characters that make me long for a neighborliness that I haven’t encountered in my lifetime.
For Further Reading in Washington, D.C.
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (writer for The Wire)
Echo House by Ward Just
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.