You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

American Pastoral

The title of Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral
comes from the main character's experience of the idyllic American life. Seymour Levov, referred to as the Swede since high school, has created a great life, starting in his father's glove making business and rising to the top, marrying a woman who was Miss New Jersey, settling down into a nice country home, and having a beautiful daughter. Yet it all comes crashing down when his sixteen-year-old daughter Merry bombs a store to protest the Vietnam War, killing a doctor, and disappears. The Swede and his wife are devastated. Most of the novel illustrates how they deal with this loss of their daughter.

The Swede tries to figure out how Merry could have done something so extreme when they had brought her up so conventionally. He wonders if it was a kiss he gave her when she was eleven, or her struggle to overcome her stutter. She had been developing more hard-line views against the war and hanging out with more and more radical friends. Out of respect he lets her have her space and her own views, but later wonders whether he should have been more controlling.

Months after the bombing, a woman who calls herself Rita Cohen comes to the Swede's factory for a tour and then lets slip that she knows Merry. She demands things from him but refuses to tell him anything about Merry except that she hates him and her mother. This is a cruel thought for the Swede to accept, that his daughter is not lost physically but emotionally. He feels she is being manipulated and that something or someone has turned her against her parents, but he is never sure.

Rita manipulates the Swede to get money out of him and attempts to seduce him in an ugly scene. She makes him know that sleeping with her would be destroying his idea of his perfect life and betray everything he believes about himself. His rejection of her indicates that he refuses to believe his life is in any way corrupt, that he is not ultimately responsible for what happened to Merry. Rita seems to be the dark side of Merry, representing everything that turned her against her parents and civilized life.

His wife Dawn has a breakdown and must be institutionalized for a time. She finally begins to get better when she gets a face lift and seems to forget about Merry. Dawn rejects their old house and takes joy in the project of building a new house with an architect friend of theirs. It seems almost inevitable that the Swede feels that her rejection of the house is personal, and realizes there is more going on. Roth has already let us know that the Swede will remarry and have three sons from the earlier part of the book, so there is a bit of expectation of how his first marriage will end. It seems the relationship can't survive the trauma that Merry has inflicted.

Five years after the incident the Swede gets another message from Rita and tracks down Merry in a small dirty room in a trashed house. He is horrified at her appearance. She has turned into a complete opposite from her violent past, shunning meat and bathing and cars. He leaves her there despite his wishes to see her safely at home. He seems to accept that she has defined her own life.

The Swede's struggle to maintain sanity when his life is falling apart is mirrored in the ongoing deterioration of the city of Newark around them. The Swede stays at his factory during the riots of the Sixties with one black woman worker. His own father, the founder of the company but now retired, keeps telling him to close the factory and get out of Newark since it's falling apart. But the Swede fights to keep the factory open even with apathetic employees, though he does open factories overseas. A part of him can see the truth, though he has a hard time accepting it.

This is a novel of character. It shows a man's loss of faith in his life and what it has meant to him. His daughter's radical act turns everything upside down. The Swede's struggles are deep even if he doesn't show them on the outside. It is a moving and complex story. A


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