Well, that was different. A Good American is, at its heart, a story about a family who immigrates to America before World War I and how successive generations handle life, love, and what comes after. It strongly reminded me of the film, Fried Green Tomatoes, because of the family drama and some of the subject matter. This is an epic tale. Parts of it, I loved. Other parts… I could have lived my life without reading.
I loved Frederick’s attitude towards his new country. It’s exactly what I imagine my great-great grandfather was like when he came over from Poland. “…Frederick loved America. He loved its big open spaces, the sunsets that drenched the evening sky in blistering color. He loved the warmth of the people. Above all, he loved smell of promise that hung in the air. Europe, he could see now, was slowly suffocating under the weight of its own history. In America the future was the only thing that mattered.” pg 57. Frederick throws himself into the American Dream- earning money and providing for his family to the detriment of his relationship with his wife, Jette.
I also loved the parts about music. In this portion, Joseph, Frederick’s son, is taking voice lessons from a rather conservative side character named Frau Bloomberg: “…Bloomberg did not approve of most of opera’s greatest female characters, who were (in her opinion) either hysterical hotheads or dissolute fornicators. She was determined to protect Joseph from all that depravity. Whenever he asked the meaning of a particular foreign word, Frau Bloomberg said the first thing that came into her head. As a result, when Joseph wistfully sang about the imminent return of a long-lost lover from overseas, he believed that he was telling a touching story about penguins.” pg 70
We don’t really get to meet the narrator of the story until much later in the book and, I think, that’s where the story line became unfocused. A couple chapters deal mostly with young men’s coming-of-age and burgeoning sexuality, so there’s a lot about masturbation. Everyone does it, I get that, but really, did it have to be such a theme? As I read it, I was wondering what some of the more elderly members of my book club are going to say about it.
In my mind, the first part of the book was the strongest- the origin story of Jette and Frederick. “My grandmother’s life had been one long opera. There had been drama, heroes, villains, improbable plot twists, all that. But most of all there had been love, great big waves of it, crashing ceaselessly against the rocks of life, bearing us all back to grace.” pg 329. There is a sweetness to their story that the rest of the book is missing.
It may be that this story simply goes on too long, but the author was clearly caught up in his own tale. “Telling stories was still a means of escape. And so I put a fresh sheet of paper into the machine, ready to flee once again. This time I no longer thought about getting published, but just wrote for my own amusement. The journey, not the destination, became the thing, and I rediscovered the simple satisfaction of seeing my ideas materialize before me, sentence after sentence.” pg 344 Even though he was speaking through his character, I’m convinced that that bit right there was all Alex George- a manifesto of sorts, written right into the story.
A Good American is also about race, religion, brotherhood, honesty, marriage, fidelity and more. Plenty for a book club to take part and chew over. Recommended for folks who like their historical fiction long and meandering with, sometimes shocking, turns in the road. Thanks for reading!