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on 14 January 2016
This is a masterpiece - in its writing, structure and themes. Don't be put off by "yet another" novel dissecting the American Dream. It does, but the humanity mixed with anger and energy are incredible. The core story is so brilliantly framed - that of a father's loss of his daughter, to extreme political violence - perpetrated by her. There can be few more harrowing scenes in any novel than their eventual re-encounter - one of the hardest scenes I've ever had to read. To me, this is a novel about the heartless power of ideas (and intellectuals) to destroy simplicity and love - which, when lost, can never be reclaimed. Its two most repugnant characters are almost from Dostoevsky, with their delight in malevolence: the chilling "Rita Cohen" and the grotesque Marcia Umanoff - the novel ends with her unbearable laughter ringing in our ears. In fact, the nearest novel to this, in its effect, is Dostoevsky's "Devils". Both novels show how the simple values of life are in constant danger, from the tyranny of ideas.
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on 19 December 2002
Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for this riveting, quietly horrifying novel that shatters the idyllic illusion of an America that once might have been, but will be no more. American Pastoral is a brilliant commentary on our inability to effectively see beneath the surface of apparent well-being and contentment in others. The first of the "Zuckerman trilogy," (which ends with The Human Stain), American Pastoral recalls and builds on Roth's most accomplished and self-referential fiction of the past.
As the novel opens, Skip Zuckerman, the childless, unattached, first-person narrator of the trilogy has a chance meeting with a boyhood hero at a baseball game. This hero is Swede Levov, an older man who is still, impossibly blonde, blue-eyed and youthful; a legend within his predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Swede is the very embodiment of "America" and all that "being American" stands for. He is, Skip is sure, incapable of living anything but the perfect, and perfectly rewarding, life.
Swede's brother, Jerry, was Skip's best friend, so when Swede asks for a meeting with Skip, Skip is a little puzzled but not all that surprised. Swede, however, doesn't ask anything specific of Skip, but talks of his sons and his memories of Newark before and during World War II. This meeting, though, is pivotal to the novel's central question and its meaning soon becomes crystal clear.
As the novel progresses, Skip attends his high school reunion and, while making note of the various deficiencies shared by the sixtyish men and women in attendance, becomes convinced that no human being ever really knows or understands another. He is depressed by all the conversation about cancer, divorce and the various problems associated with growing older. It is Jerry, though, Swede's brother, who tells Skip the one thing that will disillusion more than any other.
Roth's brilliance as well as his masterful and well-crafted prose draw us into American Pastoral and allow us to participate in the mundane life experiences of its characters as if those experiences were our very own. We live through school reunions, failed marriages, duplicity and waste as Skip proceeds to a more detailed examination of the life of Swede Levov.
Swede's life, Skip finds out, was nothing like he had imagined it would be. Obsessed, Skip begins a novel that focuses on the life of Swede Levov. Although Skip is making up a lot of his book as he goes along, the story is nonetheless true and it is a story that will resonate painfully with anyone who has ever felt alone, in control, out of control, or who has thought that he or she knew all about someone they have cared about deeply. As the facts about Swede Levov's life slowly unfold, as his secrets are unearthed, the glossy veneer of satisfaction, contentment and perfection begins to slip away from his life. As the man behind the persona is fully revealed, we come to realize, with Skip Zuckerman, that in anyone's life, one torment can, and often does, lead to more and more agony until its inevitability is appalling.
American Pastoral is more of an impassioned dialogue with its readers than a convincing and linear story. This is not a warm and comforting book that will leave a glow in your heart after the last page. In fact, its most convincing and most powerfully-written passages are those in which Swede and Skip discuss and reflect upon human nature's congenital loneliness.
American Pastoral is a painful book; it is a book that explores a dark and lonely side of human nature. But it is masterfully written, in prose that is spare and elegant and, above all, authentic. At its heart, American Pastoral is a gorgeous elegy for the American Dream; a funeral ode to an innocence that has long since passed away.
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on 16 February 2014
Big, bold and full of rage this is a great American novel. Don't believe the one star reviews. His best?
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 September 2013
This 1997 novel finds Philip Roth at the height of his powers - as insightful, witty and powerful a dissection of the American Dream as you are likely to find anywhere. Of course, Roth's wordy style is not to everyone's taste, but, for me, is ultimately rewarding as here the author uses his well-established fictional alter-ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, to narrate his tale of the fall from grace of Zuckerman's schoolboy friend, 'all American boy (then man)' and all-round sports star, Seymour 'The Swede' Levov, using such verbose metaphors as The Swede's father's (now failing) glove-making business and his 'trophy wife', ex-beauty queen, Dawn's, progressive venture into cattle farming as illustrations of the fundamental, and irreversible, economic and social changes occurring in modern day America (albeit here being predominantly focused on the changes immediately pre- and post-Watergate).

In keeping with one of this author's most distinctive, and impressive, trademarks, Roth once again reveals his narrative through a skilful, retrospective unpeeling (onion-like) as his hero, The Swede, looks back (20 years later) on his once idyllic family existence and tries to make sense of, among other things, his rebellious daughter, Merry's, transition into radical (and violent) politics, his wife's 'cooling' on their seemingly perfect relationship and his father's increasingly archaic social and religious (Jewish) convictions. Throughout, Roth's writing is never less than engaging, switching between the tragic and darkly comic at will, and reminding us (well me, at least) of the author's uncanny ability to construct lengthy expositions, whilst maintaining great simplicity of purpose.

For me, American Pastoral is one of the finest works I have read by Roth, to rank with the likes of Portnoy's Complaint, The Plot Against America, Sabbath's Theatre and Nemesis.
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on 24 February 2008
The first novel in the second Nathan Zuckerman trilogy sees Roth's alter ego as interlocutor. The story revolves around Seymour `The Swede' Levov, the tall, blonde son of Jewish immigrants, a gifted athlete who inherits a successful glove factory, and who patriotically joins the Marines and marries an Irish Catholic beauty queen, unblinkingly embracing the Anglo-Saxon perception of the American Dream. Devoted to his wife and daughter and intensely proud of his family business, all goes swimmingly for the Swede during his country's triumphant heady post-War years. But he fails to appreciate that the American Dream like all utopias cannot (by definition) exist. It is just an imaginary ideal state, and means different things to different peoples and communities at different times. It also predicates losers and victims. So when his adored daughter Meredith, crippled by a childhood stutter, becomes first a murderous revolutionary terrorist in reaction against capitalism in general and the Vietnam War in particular, spitting venomous hatred against the world that her parents had lovingly constructed, and then turns into a pacific Jain ascetic, his descent into the (suburban) American nightmare begins. Everything begins to crumble as the treachery and deception behind the façade of decency emerge to persecute and haunt him. There are some blistering passages, fulminating exchanges between the Swede and his daughter, the deranged and enigmatic Rita Cohen, and his hard bitten brother Jerry, where he is physically and mentally worn down by the ferocity of the attacks on him, on his life and all that he had ever believed in; his entire worldview. The Swede had until then seen himself as a man who had sought merely to raise his family in peace and provide for their every need but America was rapidly changing around him and values of the past were being redefined in a more sinister and immoral light. What had been self-help, personal industry and ambition to the Swede and his parents were now despised as capitalist exploitation and ugly greed by his daughter's generation.
Seymour Levov as a metaphor for economic powerhouse, self-made America and his daughter Merry a metaphor for the country's ideological decay and subsequent moral and social disintegration in the 1960s and 1970s, American Pastoral is very nearly the novel that defines America. I say very nearly because Roth's fierce, breathless style, the complexity of his writing, his lofty political and social satire, and prickly ambivalence towards Jewish identity and traditions are not to everyone's taste. But there's no denying the energy, the power and the sense of time and place, the nostalgia and ultimate disillusionment. Absolutely brilliant.
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on 27 August 2013
American Pastoral is the first and only novel I have read, so far, by this author. At first, attracted initially by the storyline and the award of a Pullitzer Prize, I found it heavy going. I think this was a combination of getting familiar with Roth's style and his attention to detail. However in persevering l was immensely rewarded. This is an epic tale in which the characters are exposed to a huge range of personal triumphs, tragedies and pretty much everything in between. Sucked in, I hoped desperately that the central character's beloved factory, workforce and neighbourhood, his "American Dream", would somehow escape the brutal onslaught of modern economic rationalism, youthful alienation and urban terrorism, but as with those closest to him, these monolithic, heart rendering events brush nurture and nature aside. For all that this is not a book that left me feeling in any way despondent. On the contrary it is packed with every positive human quality imaginable and the belief that whatever may or may not be accomplished the desire to "do the right thing" is paramount. I will certainly read other novels by this author and probably re-visit this one.
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on 19 March 2012
I draw the inevitable comparison with 'Rabbit, Run', which I liked better. 'American Pastoral' is a meandering tome that doesn't seem to resolve itself. Several of its stories are left to dangle unfinished. Its interesting premise, and where it works very well, is that the generation of Jews who ran away to America to build better, middle-class lives for themselves through dint of hard work and ambition, has spawned a generation uncomfortable with the bourgeois lives their parents and grandparents fought so hard to attain, and in the end they run from them. Thus with all-American hero, Seymour 'Swede' Levov, heir to his father's glove empire, married to a former beauty queen, whose stammering daughter rebels and commits a treacherous act against the person and the state. From there, hers is a downward spiral or mental breakdown, religious sect brainwashing, affairs and ill health, which embroils her immediate family. The whole is introduced by a novelist who attends a school reunion, forcing the reader to question the whole idea of 'the one most likely to....', and however this pans out, it might not be everything it seems on the surface.
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on 11 March 2011
this title was recomended to me by a guy i worked for as a volunteer in a book store. i was, at the time, reading the pumpkin eater, which i had spied among some discarded books, and thought i'd give it a try. i didn't get round to reading 'American Pastoral' until several months later, when i picked it up from my local library. i raced though the first half of the book. it is told from the point of view of Zuckerman, an aging writer who devotes himself to finding out about a communities adored hero called Swede. i found the first few pages, when introducing the "main" chacter Swede, to be one of the most striking introductions to a book, i have read,it is written with care and adoration, you can feel the communitys reverence for Swede in every sentence. and it did not stop there from his vivid descroptiions of american-jewish society, to his in-depth psychological analysis, the author grants the narrator an omnipresent view of a "semi-fictionalised" Swede, so you get to see zuckerman's personal relatioship with his brother and his view of swede from afar, and then you get to zuckerman's biography of swede as he tries to embody and understand his life and sufferings, though we don't know how close he is. this technique i enjoyed a lot, but towards the end of the book it seems like Roth neglected the fact that it was written at one-step remove and bypassed zuckerman, which is partly a shame. or maybe i missed something.

after i had read a good portion of the book i lost it, i think i left it on a train. whe i finally got around to reading the second-half i found the prose to be still top-notch, but the narrative not cohesive. each event has a lot of focus, but overall it seemed to meander through nostalgia and it lost me a couple of times.

this might be due to the fact of the interrupted middle, i will go back and read it all they way through at somepoint.
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VINE VOICEon 30 July 2012
The title of this novel refers to Thanksgiving, the one brief period during the year when, according to protagonist Seymour Levov, differences between Americans tend to disappear. Otherwise, in this book differences result in uneasy compromises, chaos and destruction.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first, 'Paradise Remembered', suggests one of those bland, cliquey novels about being Jewish. Its narrator, Zuckerman, begins by gushing about his boyhood hero, the aforementioned Levov, known as the Swede. Swede is what every Jew should aspire to be: good-looking, the top athlete at college, affable, benign and industrious. He even marries Miss New Jersey. Zuckerman rambles like the ex-public schoolboy who believes that Smith Minor's undefeated century for the House is the stuff of legend, unaware that it means nothing to anyone else.

What Roth does here, however, is present the surface impression of the model citizen who has it all. This is blown away in the second part, 'The Fall', in which Zuckerman retreats from view, replaced by Levov's perspective. Most of it deals with troubled close family relationships against a backdrop of 1960s turbulence: Vietnam, changing morals, decaying neighbourhoods. The third part, 'Paradise Lost', expands on this and brings in other friends and acquaintances. No one is what what they at first appear to be, or to be more precise, what the essentially good-natured, self-effacing Levov assumes them to be.

'American Pastoral' is at times a daunting novel. Roth has little time for paragraphs. On each page the reader is faced with large blocks of text within which all dialogue is buried. He also labours many points and I agree with some of the previous reviewers that the book could be shorter. Even so, I found it an ultimately rewarding novel.
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on 7 January 2011
Plenty of people have expressed considered critical reactions to this book. While I could bore you with pages of my own, I'll be merciful. My reasons for joining in are amazement at the fact that this seriously good book could receive so may crappy reviews, and a wish to lift the rating a small step towards its due level. This is one of a great novelist's greatest novels. If you haven't yet read it, do so.
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