I wanted A Good American by Alex George to be a good book. I really did.
I wanted beautifully stark prose ala Willa Cather's My Antonia, which I use as my standard for novels set in the Midwest. I wanted funny, yet truthful, glimpses into the intricacies of everyday life (like L.M. Montgomery does so well in her Anne books) of a German immigrant family in Missouri. I wanted a novel that held its own among other recent historical fiction releases such as The Help or The Chaperone.
You can't always get what you want.
The story holds incredible potential. George tackles an epic story of a German couple, Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer, forced to leave Hanover after Jette's parents disapprove of their relationship. They take the first boat to America, which lands them in New Orleans. From there, they head north to Missouri where they fall in with a German immigrant community. The book follows the story of Meisenheimers for three generations, documenting numerous tragedies, a bit of everyday life, and the changing times.
George is an attorney by trade, and he breaks the very first rule of fiction writing - show, don't tell - over and over again. He overuses narration and skimps on dialogue.The most important scenes are summarized rather than shown. The result is cardboard cutouts of characters. George is so busy telling you what the characters are like, that the reader never gets a chance to form a personal connection with them.
For all the people that George thanks in the acknowledgement section of the book for helping him with the novel, it seems like at one of those early readers could have casually suggested that George try writing the book using active voice rather than dull, dull, dull passive voice, thus saving him from the introverted wrath of English majors the world over. I knew I might be in semantic hell with this book as soon as I read this sentence on the book's inside flap: "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." Couldn't we just say "Jette's water broke?"
I know I'm all down on the prose of this book, but really, the book is quite readable and probably even more readable if you don't give a fig about sentence structure. It's an interesting story, poorly told. There's just no sparkle in George's storytelling, nothing that allows the story to leap off the pages into your own imagination. Unfortunately, A Good American missed the long, hard edits it needed to make it a stand out piece of Americana literature.
You can find more information and join the discussions about A Good American over at the BlogHer Book Club.
Disclosure: I participated in this review for the BlogHer Book Club. I was compensated for my time and received a complimentary copy of the book. However, all opinions expressed in the review are my own.