A Good American by Alex George
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Good American is a fictional memoir of the Meisenheimer family, from the 1880s through the present day. That sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a 400-page novel, and indeed, it is. But what starts as a slow dance through the early years of Frederick and Jette's life together builds an uneven tempo, and we quick-step through some generations while gliding sashaying gently through others.
Music is a key element to the story, and it's fun to follow its through generations, beginning with Frederick's display of adoration through opera and aria, moving through the seduction of jazz and ragtime, and culminating in family barbershop quartets. Strangely (or not so strangely), as the story moves to the present, we stop hearing much about modern music. *grin*
Keeping with this musical theme, I must say that author Alex George has a penchant for the use of a literary secondary dominant. Dale McGowan describes this musical device (here, ctrl+F "not a coincidence" or just read the whole thing) as "a kind of momentary harmonic trapdoor into another key," and explains that "the result is an unfulfilled yearning." That all is to say that almost every chapter break and transition break within a chapter ends in a cliffhangery statement that encourages you to keep reading. It's a good and relevant device (yearning for home is also a theme of this tale), if a bit overused here.
Frederick and Jette start their affair in their home country of Germany, much to the chagrin of Jette's parents. To escape their disapproval, the couple decides, as so many did in their day, to cross an ocean and try to build a life in the land of shining hope and supposed opportunity - America. While they originally plan for New York, they find themselves instead heading to New Orleans ("Well, they're both new," muses Jette.) and setting in motion a multigenerational smalltown life for their family, with all the quintessential angst and adoration that brings.
Though most of the book's cover blurbs describe the book as alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, I found it to be more often the latter than the former. A Good American begins as a hopeful tale of romance, escape, and new life, and while those themes continue, as the book goes on, it seems the characters are buried in tragedy after tragedy, in an endless march of death. I know - you expect death in a story that encompasses four (or was it five?) generations, but I'm not talking about your typical old-age death (though, of course, there are many of those). There are an inordinate number of characters we readers are drawn to and made to adore, who, as soon as we begin to love them, are ripped from the story in a gruesome death. Consider yourself forewarned.
But like life, this book is worth the heartache. Though it's a fictional memoir, I found myself constantly imagining the narrator sitting in a room piled with history, his grandmother's diary beside him, love letters between she and his grandfather in a pile on the desk, photos strewn across a bulletin board pinned above. The narration is clear and true, and I'd love to read it again as an audiobook.
In all, I thorougly enjoyed A Good American, and while there were a lulls, I frequently found myself picking up my book instead of my laptop, eager to return to the hopeful history of the Meisenheimers, their joy at this country with which I have become disenchanted, and the tangled web of love and sorrow weaved through their lives.
This is a compensated review by the BlogHer Book Club, but all opinions expressed are my own.
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