A Good American, by Alex George, is a sweeping story about four generations in the Meisenheimer family. The book opens with Frederick and Jette, immigrants from Hamburg, Germany who arrive in the US in 1903. They take a boat to New Orleans (because the New York boat is full), and end up settling down in a small town in Missouri when Jette goes into labor shortly after their arrival. This is the part of the book I loved – the immigrant experience, the charting of a new path in a new, foreign land. The first few chapters were really good – poignant and heartbreaking in some ways, yet full of promise in others.
Unfortunately, the book took a turn for the disappointing about 1/4 of the way in. Here’s why:
- There were lots of cliches and shallow character development. Too many of the characters fell in love at first sight – total, unconditional love that lasted a lifetime. Others were predictably noble and dignified (the dying giant; the black trumpeter) with little about them that made them particularly interesting. Still others were defined by only one thing – they had a lot of kids, or they worked hard.
- Sometimes I felt like I was reading Forrest Gump (not that I’ve read Forrest Gump), because every American historical tentpole/tragedy found its way into this book and affected the family: the stock market crash, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World Wars 1 and 2, the Kennedy assassination, etc. At one point, one of the characters unwittingly comes in contact with future president Harry Truman. (Was that really necessary?)
- The story was unrealistic at times. Would all of these people really have stayed in this little town for decades on end? There were also other coincidences/”secrets” that seemed implausible to me.
- The book has “quirky, unforgettable characters,” like a dwarf lawyer and a boy whose pituitary gland didn’t work, allowing him to grow to 8 feet tall.
- George included annoying foreshadowing at the end of chapters, like “Joseph kept his promise to Riva Bloomberg that she would be the guest of honor – although not in the way that either of them would have liked” or “His world was complete. Or so he thought.” or “When Jette looked at Cora, all she could see was the person who was going to break her son’s heart. Which she duly did, although not in the way that Jette had imagined.” (Again, really?)
- The theme of music throughout felt a little corny to me. I get that it was a musical family, but the ability of music, time and again, to cause people to fall in love, lift people out of grief, or mend broken relationships all felt a little forced by the end.
George is a good writer, for sure – his use of language was beautiful at times, and I liked the pace. It was an easy, smooth book – but it sort of felt like gliding across the surface of a pond – no depth. I wanted more emotion, more complex emotion, and subplots that didn’t tie up neatly with a marriage or a funeral.
I mostly listened to A Good American on audio, and the audio is terrific. Great narrator. In fact, I think it was the audio version that kept me interested – I am not sure I would have stuck with this book if I hadn’t been listening to it. Unfortunately, the great narration couldn’t save the deficiencies of the plot.
A Good American has gotten a lot of great reviews; I think I am definitely in the minority in terms of my disappointment. And I will say that it cemented my desire to read more historical fiction about the immigration experience to the U.S in the late 19th century. I just wish I had liked it as much at the end as I did in the beginning.
FTC disclosure: I received the audiobook from Penguin as a review copy, and read a library copy of the hardcover.