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American Pastoral
by Phillip Roth

Category: Fiction / General
0 pages; ISBN: 0375701427

Rating: 9/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Matthew Whittaker


Seymour 'Swede' Levov seems to have it all. He is idolised by classmates and neighbours alike as the archetypal all-American hero. His sporting prowess, good looks, love and respect for his family and general humility make him everyone's favourite role model. He takes delight in life's simple pleasures and appears to be truly grateful for his lot. It is not surprising therefore that, when he leaves high scool, he marries the local beauty queen, buys his dream house in the country and sets himself the task of making a success of his father's glove-making business.

But what becomes of heroes? When the author meets the Swede again fifty years on, so much appears as it once was. Yet behind the facade, which is as much a construction of the narrator, clinging to the way things were and the way things should be, as it is of the Swede, the Swede's life has fallen apart. Forced to live up to his own reputation, the Swede has spent his entire life trying to do the 'right thing'. Yet, tormented by his daughter and feeling responsible for his wife, he is forced to bear terrible pain and confusion all on his own.

Roth, as always, creates a panorama of America coated with nostalgia. Yet the book is not closed to non-Americans, for the emotions and thoughts are universal. Every school in the world has its golden boy or girl, and we all take for granted that they will make a success of their lives. We mere mortals need to have heroes, for whom life is simply a stage on which they can display their talents. We forget that, beneath the successful exterior they are human beings, imbued with the same emotional turbulence and as likely to be affected by life's trials and tribulations as the rest of us.

As with all of Roth's books, American Pastoral contains passages that take the reader's breath away with their sheer beauty. The real delight of this book, however, is that we are with the Swede 100 per cent of the way along his journey. We know he is essentially a good man, and we envy his strength of character and moral servitude, yet we can't help but feel that he is naive and unprepared for the cynicism of the real world. We become frustrated with his inability to bend the rules and his refusal to alter his principles. We invest so much in trying to become the Swede during the early part of the book, that we struggle to distance ourselves from him once things start to crumble. Secretly, a part of all of us wants to be the Swede, yet how many of us could actually handle the responsibility of the role?



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