Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 2 March 2013

A Good American - Alex George - guest review

"He had an idea, took it, and made it grow.  Worked hard, got rich. The American Dream."

There are some themes that always make a book irresistible to me.  One such theme is "the American dream", so it was inevitable that I had high hopes for Alex George's A Good American; thankfully it didn't disappoint in the slightest.

This book is the story of an immigrant family in the Mid West and spans almost the whole of the twentieth century. It opens in 1903 with the decision by a young German couple, Jette and Frederick Meisenheimer, to leave their unhappy home in Hanover and start afresh in America, a country where "the future was the only thing that mattered... [where] a man could reinvent himself."  By chance they end up in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri where they stay to raise their family and build a new life for themselves. Right from the outset, before he can even speak English, Frederick is determined to become "a good American", to work hard, and so achieve his American dream.  To an extent the Meisenheimers stand for all the hundreds of thousands of other families who uprooted their lives to find fresh opportunities in the new world of America, in "this vast narrative of hope" as George describes it.

This then is an epic fictional family memoir, spanning a hundred years and four generations of the same family.  It is narrated in an easy and confiding style by the James, grandson to Jette and Frederick, who describes people and events with affection and gentle humour so that we are drawn into his world and laugh and cry with him as the family's lives unfold.  In the course of the book we witness the personal joys and small tragedies of the Meisenheimers and their neighbours in this small rural community, births and marriages, business successes and failures, and lives cut off in their prime.  At the same time, forming a backdrop to these domestic changes of fortune are the big events in America's national history through the twentieth century: two world wars, natural disasters, the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, prohibition, racism, Vietnam, the assassination of JFK.  But the focus is always on the Meisenheimers and their neighbours; this is a domestic narrative in the style of John Irving, not a Philip Roth-type of "state of the nation" study.

One of the most beguiling aspects of the book for me was the way music permeates the entire narrative as a sort of leitmotiv. The book's opening words are "Always, there was music" and, with the Meisenheimer men all being great singers, there is almost a musical soundtrack to all the key events in the book: Frederick sings opera to woo Jette,  jazz music welcomes him to New Orleans, the Meisenheimer boys perform their barber's shop songs at weddings, funerals and the school prom. As the narrative moves on through the twentieth century, so the musical accompaniment progresses from jazz and ragtime to Elvis and pop. Alex George, himself a keen musician, conveys not only a keen love of music through his narrative, but cleverly seems to leave an impression of the book on the reader's ear as much as in his mind.

Above all, though, this is a warm-hearted and heart-warming book with well-drawn and memorable characters who inhabit a world I was reluctant to leave.  The Meisenheimers suffer grief and sadness, and the book touches on the brutality of war and the cruelty of racism, but  the tragedy is nicely balanced by the comedy and humour that suffuses the life of every family in every town in so many little ways. In this, and with its sometimes slightly grotesque minor characters (the "giant" Morrie and the dwarf Rankin Fitch), A Good American inevitably draws comparisons with John Irving's books and certainly I found it just as entertaining and just as engaging.  As James says of his grandparents' lives, "There had been drama, heroes, villains, improbable plot twists, all that. But most of all there had been love."  And that is the lasting impression this book leaves.     

Reviewed by Penny Tattersall

Many thanks to Penny for reading and reviewing A Good American for The Little Reader Library

Published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin


  1. Great review, I've added this to my wishlist :)

    1. Thanks for commenting Sam. Fab review by Penny.

  2. This sounds like such a good book! Thanks for the review, Penny and Lindsey.

    1. Thanks for commenting Karen. It sounds great doesn't it.

  3. Great review Penny, it tells me everything I want and need to know.


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