American Pastoral * Philip Roth Book Review

It took me ages to finish this book, not because it was boring but because it was filled with clumpy description of un-interesting events and people who had little to no meaning towards the story.

I got interested in this great classic of American literature after watching the movie starring Ewan McGregor and I thought – the movie was half decent and had a good premise, the book must be awesome. I was so wrong!american_pastoral_2560.jpg

It starts off pretty slow, with a former classmate of the Swede’s brother meeting up at a highschool reunion with the brother who tells him that the Sweede wants to have a story written about his father. They meet up and the Sweede keeps telling him what a great family he has, two sons, a great wife and does not mention his father at all and does not say anything about a book. It’s only when the reporter, bored as I was about the encounter, finds out that the reason he was boasting a great family is because the one he had NOW was great, the one before, not so great.


On the surface, the Sweede (called so because of his haltingly good looks and blonde hair and blue eyes, despite of his Jewish upbringing), has everything. A former Miss Jersey as a wife and a daughter so bright and cute who only has one flaw: she stutters.

The psychiatrist got Merry thinking that the stutter was a choice she made, a way of being special that she had chosen and then locked into when she had realized how well it worked

The psychologist was an odd one. After listening on Merry’s home life and inner thoughts she decided that

“Merry’s problem had largely to do with her having such good looking and successful parents.”

As she grows older and starts having a social identity, she picks the radical teens that shook America in the Anti-Vietnam war marches and she decides to show her “Support” to the cause by blowing up the post-office in her tiny home-town, killing a person in the process.

“Where did she come from? I cannot control her. I cannot recognize her. I thought she was smart. She’s not smart at all. She’s become stupid. She gets more and more stupid everytime we talk”, her mother Dawn complained.

After the bombing, their unruly daughter disappears and the tragedy begins for the parents. They are waiting for her to come back, to say that she was kidnapped, that other people did that messy bomb.

“We all have been waiting 24h/day, every day for five years to see you or hear from you… and we can postpone our lives no longer”.

It was implied that it was their fault for bringing up such a child.

“You made the angriest kid in America. Ever since she was a kid, every word she spoke was a bomb”, the Swede’s brother tells him after 3 more people are added to the kill list.


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Merry is, “The daughter who transports [the Swede] out of the longed for American pastoral and […] into the indigenous American berserk”. His life of creating gloves, his struggles to keep a business running, a wife happy – along with a daughter that is a walking disaster – this is the Swede’s life. Encounters with Rita Cohen – who says she knows where his daughter is, leave him frazzled and 10k lighter in the bank. In the end, all of this starts tumbling down as he finds his daughter, who now refuses to eat or to breathe as it could kill micro-organisms in the air – shows him the reality of the people around him.

maxresdefault.jpgShe had become a Jain” , “a relatively small Indian [as in India] religious sect“. He believes that much, but he doesn’t know how much of Merry’s Jainism is typical, and how much she’s come up with herself. She doesn’t take baths so she can’t hurt the water, and by denying all pleasure and by practicing “ahimsa or nonviolence” she can become a “‘perfected soul'” . Merry looks like she’s starving to death, literally. Her room is tiny and filthy, and there are homeless people living in filth in the hallway outside of her room. Trains are to be heard rolling overhead and her house is only accessible by passing one of the most dangerous underpasses in the world. They have to walk because she doesn’t believe in using motor vehicles.

The Swede has the worst companions in the world:

  • His daughter hates him (or worse, is indiferent to his plight)
  • His wife, after chasing for her long-lost youth and an expensive facial make-over, decides she wants to get it on with the architect of his new house, a house without their daughter
  • The mistress that he had for a short period (none-other than Merry’s psychologist) actually harboured his daughter and sent her off to the city after the post-office bombings, a place where his daughter was raped – an image that will sit with him in the rage moments
  • His brother hates him and used the most vulnerable moment in the Swede’s life to spit at him all his pent-up venom

I felt sorry for him. But more, I felt sorry for myself for reading this book. It’s a horror – the sentences do not have a clear ending and it just feels like someone is having a huge monologue without a breather. And the Sweede – he feels like a push-over, mainly designed for other people to walk on. Even by his own statement, he does not understand people and can’t see past their outer appearance and what they tell him they are (so you get a cheating wife!)

Overall score: 3/5 with a Boredom Warning!

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