Updated on August 5, 2015
15. ‘A Good American’ by Alex George
George writes in a fresh and engaging style – from the first sentence the reader really feels George knows his characters and his story. It is a well-paced book, and to say that it covers a ‘grand sweep’ of history is bang on. It opens in Germany in the early 1900s, with Jette and Frederick’s illicit love affair, which causes them to flee to America and start a new life, and a family. The story follows the growing Meisenheimer family through the decades to the modern day, as new generations are born, raised and die in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. It feels similar in intention to Garcia Márquez’s epic family saga ‘100 years of solitude’, with quirky characters galore, but perhaps unsurprisingly this novel doesn’t quite live up to the aforementioned masterpiece.
I did enjoy the book, but I had a few problems with it that niggled at me and made the reading less enjoyable. For example, most of the time the characters were able to turn their hand to any pursuit and be an instant success at it. On his first singing lesson young Joseph’s voice is described as “a starburst of beauty, too perfect for this world”. This not only happened with singing,but also learning languages, chess, cooking, baseball, football, writing and singing again, and after a while the descriptions of how a character tried something new and flourished became quite repetitive and overly optimistic.
The perspective is interesting: it is told from the point the point of view of James, the first-person narrator who isn’t actually born until about halfway through the book. This isn’t a problem in itself – take ‘Tristram Shandy’ and ‘Midnight’s Children’ as examples of this done well – but I felt there wasn’t enough of him running through the first part of the book. Occasionally there would be a first-person sentence and I would suddenly remember that James was talking to me, but he wasn’t a strong enough thread all the way through.
This is particularly true because the narrative voice moves about so much, delving into other characters thoughts and talking about things James the person wouldn’t have known. Again, this isn’t a technique that shouldn’t be done – James is a writer and by the end we realise he is telling his story and probably embellishing it as he sees fit – but I felt it would have worked just as well in the third person.
Actually, what really caught my imagination was the tavern-turned-restaurant-turned-diner in the town. The first Meisenheimers in Beatrice buy the tavern and continue to own it and convert it throughout the generations. I thought it worked almost as a character in itself and sometimes felt as much nostalgia for the previous iterations of the building as I did for the death of the human characters. Perhaps the story would have been better told with a focus on the place, the Nick Nack; seeing the Meisenheimers arrive, taking it over and dragging it through the changing fashions of the decades.
This was an enjoyable read, and the characters were clearly and ably drawn, but I don’t think I would rush out to find more of George’s slightly over-idealised writing.
“Each afternoon she brought an armful of books home with her and barricaded herself behind a fortress of words.”
This was the second book sent to me by Penguin Books UK to review as part of the Proof Group. On the cover it says that it is an ‘advance reading copy’, so I am interested to know how much the final edition differs from this version.
I love reviewing these books, and am very excited to read more!
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