2.5 stars out of 5
(Just a brief disclaimer, my review is rather negative. If you enjoyed reading this book I am glad you had a better experience with it than I did. Also, if you are wanting to read it, don’t let my view sway your opinion! As I say below, there are some really beautifully written passages.)
While I felt this book had some really beautifully written passages, I also had a lot of issues with it. It was hard for me to get through it after about the halfway point. First, I’ll give a brief synopsis and then explain my issues with it.
American Pastoral is a novel that mostly centers around the Levov family. The novel opens, however, with the narrator, Skip Zuckerman, reminiscing about the infamous hometown hero, Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov. Zuckerman is a writer and when the novel opens he is about to attend his 45th class reunion. Shortly before this time, though, he receives a letter from Swede asking him to meet up with him in the hopes that Zuckerman might write a tribute to honor his recently deceased father. This is the basis for what follows in the rest of the novel.
When Zuckerman attends his class reunion he talks with Jerry Levov, Swede’s younger brother, who reveals to him a number of facts about Swede and about his daughter, Merry Levov, that lead the story down a very different route. Without giving too much away, Merry Levov was a political activist and allegedly perpetrated an act of violence in the name of her ideological and political beliefs. The story follows the time leading up to this point and the aftermath.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, I had a lot of issues with the book. First of all, I didn’t really like the device of the embedded narrative as it was used here. Zuckerman starts to imagine the trajectory of Swede Levov’s life after Merry becomes involved in radical political movements. The transition from the present day in which Zuckerman is narrating his life experiences to his imagining of Swede’s life seemed clunky to me. I couldn’t help but continue to be aware that the author within the story was creating a story for me as the reader and as a result the whole “imagined story” seemed really unbelievable to me. This was further exacerbated by the fact that a lot of the occurrences within the “imagined story” seemed really implausible.
On a related note, Roth seems to paint Swede as an alpha male. He is the embodiment of the masculine ideal and has achieved the American dream, or at least appears to have achieved it from an outsider’s point of view. I took issue with this because although we are led to believe that Swede is a good man, there are a number of passages where he comes across as very misogynistic and degrading towards women. Swede is portrayed as irresistible to the women in his life, including those that are far too young (or inappropriate for other reasons) to be sexually involved with him.
My final complaint about this novel is that after the first section called “Paradise Remembered” it was just very boring for me. The first section had some really beautiful passages. I enjoyed the writing immensely in the first section, but from the second section on (there are three sections) I felt like the narrative was highly repetitive and too little action occurred. There are a lot of flashbacks throughout the novel, usually given to the reader via Swede Levov, which repeat instances that have already been covered in the narrative.
If I had to summarize my thoughts on this novel after reading, I would just say I’m glad it’s done. Now on to something more interesting. It’s a bit disappointing since I was looking forward to this novel and had high hopes that I would like it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for me.