A Good American
Alex George (Twitter) (Facebook)
Berkley Trade (February 2013), Paperback (ISBN 0425253171 / 9780425253175)
Fiction, 432 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (iBooks edition: ISBN 9781101559895)
Reason for reading: BlogHer Book Club
The BlogHer Book Club is sponsored by Penguin Group. BlogHer compensates me for this review and participation in online discussions. All opinions expressed are my own.
Opening lines: “Always, there was music.
“It was music— Puccini, to be precise— that first drew my grandparents into each other’s orbit, more than a hundred years ago. It was an unusually warm afternoon in early spring, in the grandest municipal garden in Hanover, the Grosse Garten. My grandmother, Henriette Furst, was taking her usual Sunday stroll among the regimented flower beds and manicured lawns so beloved of city-dwelling Prussians. At twenty-five, she was a fine example of Teutonic rude health: Jette, as she was known by everyone, was six feet tall, and robustly built. She walked through the park with none of the feminine grace that was expected from ladies of her class. Rather than making her way by trippingly petite steps on the arm of an admirer, Jette clomped briskly along the graveled paths alone, too busy enjoying the day to worry about the unladylike spectacle she presented to others. Rather than squeezing her considerable frame into the bustles and corsets that constrained the grim-faced ladies she so effortlessly outflanked, Jette preferred voluminous dresses that draped her outsized form like colorful tents. She swept along in a dramatic, free flowing swirl, leaving all those rigidly contoured women hobbling in her wake.
“And then, as she passed a sculpted wall of privet, a song drifted out from behind the topiary. The singer was male: his voice, as clear and as pure as a freshly struck bell, fell on Jette like a shower of jasmine.”
Book description, via the publisher’s website:
This is the story of the Meisenheimer family, told by James, a third-generation American living in Beatrice, Missouri. It’s where his German grandparents—Frederick and Jette—found themselves after journeying across the turbulent Atlantic, fording the flood-swollen Mississippi, and being brought to a sudden halt by the broken water of the pregnant Jette.
A Good American tells of Jette’s dogged determination to feed a town sauerkraut and soul food; the loves and losses of her children, Joseph and Rosa; and the precocious voices of James and his brothers, sometimes raised in discord…sometimes in perfect harmony.
But above all, A Good American is about the music in Frederick’s heart, a song that began as an aria, was jazzed by ragtime, and became an anthem of love for his adopted country that the family still hears to this day.
Comments: It seems somewhat contradictory to describe Alex George’s novel A Good American as a “small-scale family saga,” but that’s how it struck me. The story of four generations of the Meisenheimer family doesn’t lack colorful characters or events, but it also doesn’t have that sprawling, melodramatic, bigger-than-life feel that I associate with that type of fiction. (Maybe I read The Thorn Birds too many times in my impressionable youth.) Perhaps I’m losing my taste for sprawling melodrama with age, though, because A Good American didn’t need it to keep me engaged.
The Meisenheimer story is told by James, the second of four American-born grandsons of immigrants Frederick and Jette, whose plans to settle in St. Louis were permanently sidetracked when they stopped over in the small Missouri town of Beatrice. Surrounded by fellow Germans, they put down roots, but they are tested by larger events as World War I alters American attitudes toward Germans everywhere and Prohibition shuts down the family business. But because reinvention is an American hallmark, the bar is reborn as a restaurant, and over the decades, its menu evolves from Jette’s native German specialities to her son Joseph’s all-American burgers to a great-grandson’s Mexican-style offerings. And while James associates his family’s story with music–taught to sing by their father Joseph, who learned to love music from his father Frederick, he and his three brothers sang together as a barbershop quartet–but food is at least as big a part of it.
George’s style, via James’ voice, is straightforward, not flashy, and suits the story very well. The humor is subtle, and the family drama is offset by the drama of the great changes of the 20th century. A Good American begins as the story of new Americans, but for me, it really comes to life when it becomes the story of James and his brothers, the all-American grandsons growing up and making lives in small-town America. This is traditional, old-fashioned fiction, and sometimes that’s just the right kind of comfort food.
The BlogHer Book Club is reading and discussing A Good American for the next few weeks–come join our conversation!