Posted by: Andrea | April 30, 2008

The Plot Against America

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is one I’ve been meaning to read for quite awhile.  I’d read Robert Harris’ Fatherland way back in high school and really enjoyed it.  Fatherland, if you haven’t read it, is about a detective living in Germany following Germany’s victory in World War II.  It’s a fascinating look at what the world would have been like if Germany had won the war and the world was effectively conquered by fascism.  In addition, all the jews and other undesirables would have just disappeared forever and the concentration camps would never have been discovered at all.  I find these alternative history books very interesting and I felt Fatherland was particularly well done (at the time, I haven’t read it in many years).

The Plot Against America, however, is not that book.  I thought it was, when I first read the back, thinking that this was about how it would have been in America if Germany had won the war.  I should have read the back a little more closely though.  This book is actually the personal story of a nine year old Jewish boy named Philip Roth and his family.  This describes what the world would have been like if Pearl Harbour had never been bombed when it was and America stayed out of the war when it started.  In addition, there’s the presence of President Charles Lindburgh, an anti-semitic republican who is quite sympathetic to Hitler.  It is definitely an interesting premise and focuses primarily on this one family and how the political situation affects them.  It made for a very personal viewpoint of how a child might view such important political situations.  He was involved in them but still a little bit too young to completely understand what was happening to the wider world.  The focus was definitely on their small neighbourhood in Newark and the impacts felt there.  What I found most effective was how the different relationships within the family were presented.  Not every person will have the same views about politics, particularly about war.  The tensions this brings about, particularly when people with very strong views are opposed, felt very true to life.

I read some reviews that said this book was Roth’s own criticism of Bush and the Iraq war.  He’s denied this, but I can see how people would make that connection.  In particular I felt that the arguments people have and how political viewpoints can strain personal relationship were very reminiscent of current political tensions.  Politics can be so personal, particularly when discussing war and the reasons for and against it.  In all of these ways I found this book very effective and an interesting read.

Where it all fell down was in the last two chapters.  Roth spent such a considerable amount of time building the tension and the frustration in the main characters over where the country was going.  And then suddenly after one (extremely strange and a bit unbelievable) event, the entire situation shifts.  It felt so rushed and odd and frankly, I felt that Roth just decided to write himself out of a corner.  It struck of deus ex machina, something I thought most writers had given up centuries ago.  It was a disappointing ending to a book that could have been so much more.  Recommended if you like Philip Roth, but be prepared for an ending that’s more than a bit farfetched.  (But read Fatherland if you want a good alternative history book!)

 

 

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Responses

  1. This has been on my “Must Read” list ever since I read “The Human Stain”. I started it at one point, but couldn’t really get into it. Maybe I’ll give it another try this summer.

    “The Human Stain” is another GREAT read (seriously, I LOVED this book). Fans fo Roth will love it too…

  2. I read the book after listening to an interview with Roth on NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terri Gross” and I have to admit, I thought the interview was more interesting than the book. I love the premise, but I have to say, I thought the delivery was really tough to get into. It didn’t help that the narrative jumpped all over the place in the beginning.

    As for alternative history, I suggest Harry Turtledove’s “The Guns of the South” as the all time best example.

  3. I’ll have to check that one out! I enjoy alternative history a lot, though I haven’t heard of Guns of the South. I’ll agree with you though that this one was hard to get through. It felt like a slog to get to the end and then suddenly all this strange stuff started happening to wrap it all up neatly and I was like, um, what?! Good idea but fell down a bit in the execution of it.


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