Kathryn's Reviews > American Pastoral

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
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Feb 05, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: pulitzer-prize-novel-fiction, 2010
Read in February, 2010

As part of my continuing project to read the Pulitzer Prize winning novels in order, in due time I reached this book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998. Of the Philip Roth books I have read, this one has been the best by far, and in my opinion, well deserving of the Pulitzer. (This is not to say that the novel is perfect; among other things, it ends abruptly, without tying up several very loose ends.)

The novel opens with Roth’s frequent narrator in his book, Nathan Zukerman (class of 1950, Weequahic High School, Newark, New Jersey), remembering a student who was five years ahead of him in school, who was a consummate, effortless athlete in three sports, was tall and handsome, was loved by all, who was wonderful to all, and who, due to his un-Jewish blond complexion, was known as “the Swede’. Zukerman later hears that the Swede went into the Marines, went into his father’s glove-making factory in Newark, New Jersey, married a former (non-Jewish) Miss New Jersey, and went to live an idyllic life in the New Jersey countryside. He meets the Swede briefly in 1985 at a Mets ball game (the Swede is there with his eldest son, a teenage boy); then again, in 1995, when he meets the Swede, at the Swede’s invitation, to talk over lunch in a New York restaurant, a talk at which the Swede tells him about his three sons. Zukerman is left after the talk with the impression that nothing every really happened to the Swede in his life, that everything came effortlessly to him, like sports in high school. A few months later, at his forty-fifth high school reunion, Zukerman meets his classmate, the Swede’s little brother, who tells him that the Swede has died – and that, in 1968, during the Vietnam War, his brother’s perfect country life in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, was destroyed by his own daughter.

At this point, Zukerman falls away from the narration, and we learn, going back and forth in time like a weaver’s shuttle, about the Swede’s life, and how it was destroyed in an instant by his own sixteen-year-old only child and daughter. The Swede has always done the right thing; and he finds, to his horror, that doing the right thing is not enough to save himself or his family. The book takes us to a final eventful day in 1973, and leaves us wondering how the Swede rebuilt his life to get to 1995; but, the point is not his rebuilding, but his initial dissolution.

I found this a very good book, even though it is maddening to have Roth suddenly double back in time, just when something is about to happen in the present time in the book.
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Sonya I love this book. I'm so glad you're reading it.


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