Synopses & Reviews
As the American century draws to an uneasy close, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all our century's promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss. Roth's protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father's glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him.
For Swede's adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager — a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. Compulsively readable, propelled by sorrow, rage, and a deep compassion for its characters, this is Roth's masterpiece.
"Dazzling...a wrenching, compassionate, intelligent novel...gorgeous." Boston Globe
"At once expansive and painstakingly detailed....The pages of American Pastoral crackle with the electricity and zest of a first-rate mind at work." San Francisco Chronicle
"One of Roth's most powerful novels ever...moving, generous and ambitious...a fiercely affecting work of art." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[M]agnificent....This is Roth's most mature novel, powerful and universally resonant....The picture is chilling." Publishers Weekly
"[E]legiac and affecting....[P]assion seethes through the novel's pages. Some of the best pure writing Roth has done." Kirkus Reviews
"American Pastoral successfully shoulders its weighty public theme of American optimism undone by a propensity for the extreme. It also rounds up Roth's usual subjects Jewish assimilation, bourgeois pretension and the shiksa's fatal allure....Roth's faithful, often piercing apprehension of the jagged emotional transactions between parent and child form this book's true achievement....Sadly though, this is another novel by a marquee author that suffers from intimidated or inactive editors. There are long sections of conversation...that just go on and on. Structurally, the book is poorly shaped. Roth doesn't circle back to the 90-page preamble featuring Zuckerman, the ending feels arbitrary and the gratifying if bracing payoff that American Pastoral vigorously promises throughout is denied. But, if you want a Philip Roth book that isn't just another bulletin from his life, this one is that and more." Albert Mobilio, Salon.com
"Roth is a masterly prose stylist...and there are many passages of fine language....But these strengths are indulged in a way that becomes the book's weakness. The abstracted treatment of ideas, the weighty, morally serious exposition, result in a novel that holds its material at arm's length from the reader." Ralph Lombreglia, The Atlantic Monthly
"Pastoral...is well crafted with vivid, crisp prose, but unlike [other Roth novels], it's empty....Once again, no one escapes the misery that personifies modern America." Ted Leventhal, Booklist
"Roth doesn't tell the whole story blow by blow but gives us the essentials in luminous, overlapping bits. In the end, the book positively resonates with the anguish of a father who has utterly lost his daughter. Highly recommended." Library Journal
About the Author
In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction. He has twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004.” Recently Roth received PEN’s two most prestigious awards: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. Roth is the only living American novelist to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Philip Roth's American Pastoral
. We hope they will open up new approaches to this explosive and viscerally moving novel by one of the most esteemed American writers of the twentieth century.
1. What is the effect of being told the story through Zuckerman? Are we led to believe aspects of the story are a projection of Zuckerman's fantasies about a character who caught his imagination?
2. Zuckerman sees the Swede's life as an illustration of the Jewish "desire to go the limit in America with your rights, forming yourself as an ideal person who gets rid of the traditional Jewish habits and attitudes, who frees himself of the pre-America insecurities and the old, constraining obsessions so as to live unapologetically as an equal among equals" [p. 85]. How does Roth illustrate this thought? The Swede tries very hard to form himself as this ideal person. Does the story imply that such a life, such a reinvention of the self, is ultimately impossible?
3. There could hardly be two more different personality types than the Swede and his brother, Jerry. What do Jerry's positive traits tell us about the Swede's negative ones? Why have the two of them chosen such different paths?
4. Does Lou Levov appear to be a benign or a negative influence on his sons' lives? How, if at all, has he contributed in making the Swede what he is?
5. The passionate kiss that the Swede gave Merry when she was eleven was a once-in-a-lifetime transgression. "Never in his entire life, not as a son, a husband, a father, even as an employer, had he given way to anything so alien to the emotional rules by which he was governed" [p. 91]. Later the Swede fears that this moment precipitated the infinite anger of her teenage years. Is this conclusion erroneous? What does it reveal?
6. The Swede believes that the political radicalism professed by Merry and Rita Cohen is nothing but "angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed" [p. 134]. Is the answer as simple as that? How genuine is Merry's identification with the oppressed? Are her political arguments convincing?
7. What effect did the experience of watching, as a child, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monks have upon Merry? Does her reaction seem unusual to you? Did it affect what happened to her later?
8. What effect do all the details about the glove trade have upon the narrative? How do they illuminate the story?
9. Do you believe Merry when she says that she doesn't know Rita Cohen? If she is telling the truth, who might Rita Cohen be? What is her function within the story?
10. The Swede planned his life to be picture perfect, and he lived that life until it turned dark and violent. Was his life the essential American Dream, or was it a nightmare rather than a pastoral? What comment does the novel's title make upon the story it tells?
11. What are Merry's feelings for America? What are her feelings for her parents? How are the two connected?
12. Merry's stuttering began to disappear when she worked with dynamite. What emotional purpose did Merry's stuttering serve, and why was she able to leave the handicap behind her when she left home?
13. When the Swede calls Jerry to ask for his advice, he is treated to a diatribe. "What's the matter with you?" Jerry asks. "You're acceding to her the way you acceded to your father, the way you have acceded to everything in your life" [p. 273]. Is Jerry right? Should the Swede force Merry to come home? Why does the Swede refuse Jerry's offer to come get Merry himself?
14. Why does Merry, when she becomes a Jain, choose to settle in the neighborhood of her father's factory in Newark?
15. Does Dawn, in reinventing herself after Merry's disappearance, seem ruthless to you, or do you sympathize with her struggle for personal survival? When she tells Bill Orcutt that she always hated the Old Rimrock house, is she telling the truth? And is she telling the truth when she claims she is glad that she didn't become Miss America?
16. Describing his brother, Jerry says, "In one way he could be conceived as completely banal and conventional. An absence of negative values and nothing more. Bred to be dumb, built for convention, and so on" [p. 65]. Is this how you see Swede Levov by the end of the novel? Does he depart from banality and convention?
17. "His great looks, his larger-than-lifeness, his glory, our sense of his having been exempted from all self-doubt by his heroic role--that all these manly properties had precipitated a political murder made me think of the compelling story...of Kennedy" [p. 83]. In what ways do American Pastoral's political metaphors reflect the story of mid-century America? Why might they be presented through a Kennedy-like figure?
18. The Swede" had learned the worst lesson that life can teach--that it makes no sense." What leads him to this conclusion? Did his life in fact make no sense?