Steve Piacente's Reviews > American Pastoral

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
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Nov 08, 11

Read from November 03 to 08, 2011

Think how less stressful life would be if we could shed the tendency to think our problems are oh-so-unique, that no one else panics before a speech, fights with a lover over lost passion, or struggles to resist the lure of junk food, slot machines, or one more drink.

The tendency is rooted in appearances. Somewhere, somehow, we learned to keep these things – some would call them failings - private. To the world, we must appear perfect, content, and unflappable. The truth is that if you peeked inside anyone’s window, you’d see the flawless life doesn’t exist.

Nope, life’s messy. It’s been said before, though rarely as well as in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. This is a book crammed with big, provocative thoughts fleshed out with exquisite, often painful details. It tells the story of “Swede” Levov, a successful guy in every way. Until you peek in the window and see that the daughter he and his beauty queen wife are raising is on a path that will destroy the family.

Sometimes the problems we face explode with such force, they become public, and the image we strived for – the one that says all is fine, we’re doing very well within these four brick, middle class walls, thank you – is shattered forever. That’s what happens to the Swede when his precocious, stuttering daughter Merry grows into an anti-(Vietnam) war zealot and blows up a rural post office in their quiet New Jersey town.

The peek Roth gives us inside the life and mind of Swede Levov develops into a lengthy stay with the family. Roth’s prose is distinctive; at times he sets out huge portions of words that may make you impatient for a period to end the sentence. Stick with it; the words carry us forward. And you’ll be rewarded. The arguments between the Swede and his daughter about Merry staying with her radical friends in New York will make you feel like you’re behind a curtain in the living room listening in.

When it’s time to go for good, you’ll think about America and Americans, and about yourself, your family and your beliefs. Some of it may be painful; all of it will be worthwhile.

If you missed this book, winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, you missed a good one that gets all five of my stars.

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