I had not read any Philip Roth before this, but when I heard about the synopsis of this book I immediately wanted to read it. The novel tells the story of Seymour Levov (affectionately known to everyone as ‘the Swede’), who is a third generation Jewish-American, growing up in the 1940s. The Swede is a high-school sports star, who is as humble and good-natured as he is talented, and to those around him his good-looks, athleticism and success seem to embody the American Dream. After school he joins the US Marines for a short while, then takes over from his father in running the family glove company. He also marries Dawn Dwyer, the 1949 Miss-New-Jersey, has a child and settles down to domestic bliss in the affluent old town of Rimrock.

But as you might guess, this American Pastoral does not stay idyllic for ever…

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

We learn, through our narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, that the Swede’s only child, sweet Merry, grows up to become an increasingly angry and rebellious teenager, who, at age 17 becomes so outraged at the United States’ conduct in Vietnam, that she commits an act of political terrorism that has far-reaching consequences.

In American Pastoral Philip Roth seems to be posing the question: How can everything which seemed so good, so prosperous, so wholesome in America in the 1950s have gone on to produce a society, which in a few short years seems to have lost it’s values, morals and social cohesion. Again and again throughout the narrative the Swede tries to find a reason behind the actions of his daughter, but ultimately he has to concede that there seems to be no reason. That despite his best efforts, even he cannot keep all of the plates spinning and all members of his family smiling. Something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong.

American Pastoral offers a strong and compelling narrative, but this is not a book for the faint hearted.