Sunday, April 11, 2010

American Pastoral - Phillip Roth

Yes, it took me a long while to read this book. After reading 3 books in January, I took a few weeks off, and then decided to dive back into the list with Phillip Roth's American Pastoral. I could not get into this book for the life of me. It took me weeks (months?) to get through the first of three parts. Once I made it past that, though, the rest of the book was a great read. The first part is a first person narration of growing up in a town with Swede Levov, our protagonist. Swede was the boy next door, the all american boy with great looks, and incredible athletic talent. He had it all, and everybody loved him, wanted him/wanted to be him. While I understand Roth's purpose behind this first part of the book (to demonstrate how great it was -from an outsider's perspective- to be Swede Levov growing up. How years later when they meet up again, the narrator is shocked to find that Swede appears to be an empty shell.) It seemed as though his life was an easy ride and he never had to stop and wonder about the world and his place in it. I understand this introduction to the story, but it also seemed unnecessary. I almost feel like it takes away from the actual story.

The next two parts have more of an omnipotent narrator; whether this is the same narrator from the first part now just writing Swede's story, I'm still unclear on. Please feel free to let me know if you've also read this book. Either war, the narrator was right. Swede's life was pretty great. He grew up, married a beauty queen, successfully ran his father's business, and bought his dream house. He was living the "American Dream". The only blemish on this perfect life was his stuttering daughter. Merry grew up angry and embittered by her inability to live up to her parent's legacy of perfection. As the story takes place in the 1960s, Merry uses the Vietnam war as her outlet. At 16, she commits an act of terrorism in their hometown of Old Rimrock and it changes everything for Swede. It is only now that he begins to question everything; to look inside himself for answers. This is where the real story begins. His internal struggle is sometimes to difficult to witness, but that is only a testament to the sheer brilliance of Roth's writing. I'm not surprised this novel won the Pulitzer, as it tears apart what it means to be an American and puts it back together in a jumbled, wonky sort of way. The way most of us can relate to (not that we all have children that commit violent acts and ruin our lives, but in that no life is perfect and we all have our problems).

I highly recommend this one. As usual, this novel is a bit of a downer (pretty on par with the list thus far), but all great stories have a bit of tragedy to them, right?

 If you're like me and struggle with the first 100 or so pages, don't give up on it! It's worth it.

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