Review of American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 3: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

American Pastoral is a moving novel which follows the destruction of the world of Seymour (Swede) Levov in the aftermath of his daughter’s bombing of the Rimrock post office and general store in protest of the Vietnam War. Swede Levov is the good-looking high school multi-sport star who eventually joins the U.S. Marines at the end of World War II and then returns home, marries Miss New Jersey, takes over the family glove business and builds a successful life. Although the beautiful couple come from different backgrounds (Swede’s family is Jewish while his wife Dawn is Irish Catholic) the manage to construct a seemingly perfect environment to raise their one daughter, Merry. Yet, their daughter rejects everything about their family life and eventually becomes a part of a violent anti-American group which opposes the actions of the United States in Vietnam and the American capitalistic worldview. Merry plants a bomb and disappears leaving behind a wrecked family.

Swede Levov loved his work, his house, his family, and his life. He attempts to encounter life with an ‘expansive blessing of openness and vigor conferred by his hyperoptimism.’ He is a statuesque protagonist whose experience on the sports field, the Marine Corp, and business have shaped him to continually bear the burdens of others. When his daughter’s actions plunge his wife into a deep depression and shakes his community he attempts to maintain a firm foundation for his wife, his parents, his business, and his missing daughter. When he finally encounters his daughter years later and sees the wreckage of her life that he cannot save her from, he also begins to see the places where his own life and values have come undone. He stands powerless as the foundations of the life he so carefully tended are torn asunder to the delight of some of the more nihilistic characters in the book.

This is another book that is well written, and I can see why it is a part of the Time Magazine top 100 list. Many of these books tend towards a nihilistic and fatalistic perspective on society and humanity (also not surprising based on Lev Grossman’s writing) and seem to rail against the hyperoptimism of characters like Swede Levov. I really like the character of Swede and could identify with him in many ways. Even though I knew that the book was a story of the fall of the ‘golden child’ I wanted him to succeed. I may have read this book at some point in the past because some of the scenes were familiar. Philip Roth does a good job of character development even if he sometimes goes off on rambling almost stream of consciousness tangents that can make the work difficult to follow at times.

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