One sentence plot
Three generations of activists rebel against the world and each other in a context of New York 20th century social change.
I really wanted to love the second book picked by my new book club. I didn’t want to be the curmudgeon in the corner always criticizing the group’s books. I quite liked the sound of this one. And yet this book has so few redeeming features that I’m reluctantly but vehemently giving it this blog’s first 1/5 rating.
My main and major criticism of this book is that it is boring. The level of boring of this book was so unremitting that I struggled to get through the thing at all – along, I must add, with pretty much every other member of my book club. I was almost the only one to finish the whole thing, and only because of my sense of obligation. The book isn’t particularly long. But at a micro level it is all long, clunking, multi-part, dense, tedious sentences, and at a macro level I absolutely couldn’t care less what happened, what these characters did, what happened to them. There was almost no point in this book at which if someone had snatched it from me mid-sentence I might have felt any glimmer of frustration or regret. Reading the book was a major chore, and not one that was eventually rewarding. As I read the last lines, after thinking ‘I don’t really get why he did that’, I thought ‘I don’t care. It’s over! Hooray!’
The book covers three generations of an extended family, the matriarch being Rose, a Jewish communist, whose German communist husband is exiled to Germany. Her daughter Miriam rebels with communism and revolution to rival her mother’s. Miriam’s son Sergius, brought up in a Quaker boarding school and oozing conventionality til his heritage seemingly drives him to be a rebel without a cause. The supporting characters are in some ways quite interesting, but not especially engaging. They’re hard to keep straight. Cicero. Tommy. Lenny. Random others. The relationships are fractured and insufficiently examined. The action is described in retrospect rather than in any sort of real time.
There is an occasional funny moment, usually linked to a rare use of a character’s own voice (Miriam’s letters to her absent father, for instance) but mostly, oh, what a self-indulgent, tedious, smug book! Every social issue of the 20th century is superficially, pointlessly crammed in. Occupy! Race! AIDS! It’s the sort of book you just know the author is imagining reviewers calling a great American novel. And instead, I found it a lot of sound and fury signifying… not very much. Granted I thought the last quarter of the book was better than what preceded it, but by this time I was too prejudiced against the whole enterprise to permit any whisper of redemption. What a disappointing waste of $30 and about 15 hours of my life. I’ve heard Lethem’s other books are much better, but I just don’t think I could bear to try reading another one…
The verdict: 1/5 shoes