Book Review: A Good American

For this week’s entry, I am posting my review of Alex George’s new novel, A Good American. Alex is a friend and a fellow-Columbian (Missouri not South America) and has hit it out of the park with this book. Released just two weeks ago, A Good American has already garnered a lot of attention. It was chosen by Barnes & Noble and as a Best Book of the Month for February 2012, #1 Indiebound pick for February, and the No.1 Read to Pick Up for February by O Magazine. After reading the book, it is easy to see why. Alex was gracious enough to sit down with me for a short author Q & A which follows the review below. I hope you enjoy!

Book Review: A Good American by Alex George

Alex George has lived in Columbia, MO, for the past nine years. Born and raised in England, George moved to the States with his family in 2003 and worked as an attorney by day, and a writer by earlier-in-the-day. The result is his U.S. debut novel, A Good American. Like the characters in his book, George simultaneously feels great love and respect for his new country (he recently became a naturalized citizen) and a profound longing for the place he has always called home. It is this internal struggle, along with George’s enormous talent for lush, evocative prose that makes him the perfect person to tell this story of the Meisenheimer family; a story of how people become family and places become home.

A Good American begins in 1904 with the journey of Frederick and Jette, a young couple desperately in love and pregnant-out-wedlock, as they leave their homeland of Germany to start a new life in America. The couple leaves secretly aboard a ship that takes them across the Atlantic to New Orleans. (Jette says of their destination, “New York, New Orleans, what’s the difference? They’re both New.”) Upon arrival, Frederick is instantly bewitched by the strange, avant-garde sounds he hears coming out of a small Jazz club he wanders past. Already a music lover, Frederick immediately attaches to this new music, with all of its soulful, syncopated wonder, and it becomes the first of many things he loves about his new country.

Jette, who is by now Frederick’s wife, is not quite as keen to immerse herself in American culture as is her husband. When the couple eventually ends up in the fictional town of Beatrice, MO, she is relieved to be in a place populated largely with German immigrants. It is here that the Meisenheimer’s family plants its roots and here that the first of many generations grows and blooms.

The story is told by James, Frederick’s grandson, who proves a reliable narrator, guiding us through the family’s history – from long before he was born until present day when we learn (at the same time he does) that his family conspired for decades to keep a dark secret from him. Heartbroken and shaken, James must integrate this new information into what he has always believed about his family, forcing him to see everything -including himself- in an entirely new light.

George’s A Good American ambles through the 20th century in a melodious, mellifluent way – much like the Jazz music Frederick so loves. It draws readers in with the unique, funny, and sometimes tragic experiences of this family. At times, the story was reminiscent to me of Forrest Gump in the charming way it sets the fictional lives of his characters against real life events like World Wars I and II, The Vietnam War, the assignation of JFK, and the ubiquitous racial tensions present in so much of this time period.

Themes of complex familial relationships, duty, honor, resiliency, and love repeatedly emerge throughout the book, new and fresh with each generation’s story. It is impossible not to feel connected to this family and be invested in their outcome. In a way, their story is the story of all American families. If most of us were to search our family trees, we would surely find our own Fredericks and Jettes; people who came to this country in search of a new home, a better life. No family’s history is without moments of unadulterated happiness or soul-shattering despair, so it is for the Meisenheimers, but George’s story – beautifully written and deftly told, is sure to strike a familiar chord with many readers who will relate to the epic tale of family and their journey to become good Americans.


Author Q & A With Alex George:

JO: Is there any one thing you hope people will take away from reading your book?


AG: What I wanted to do with this book was tell a really good story – a big, complex story people could get lost in. I wanted to pull the reader in and make a connection with them. I think that is what good story telling is all about.

JO: Was writing this book based on your own experiences as an immigrant?

AG: In a way. I think everybody who moves to another country experiences a certain degree of ambivalence. The way I processed that in my head, I suppose, was to embody those feeling within these characters. Frederick is the part of me that wholly embraced America, and Jette is the part of me that was more cautious and homesick.

JO: You weave in real historical events into the fictional lives of your characters. Why did you choose to do that? 

AG: I found you couldn’t really tell a story that spans a century of American history and pretend that the real world wan’t going on. Plus, it was fun. I enjoyed including Harry Truman – obviously he was from Missouri and he did play the piano, so it was a natural fit.

JO: How has living in Columbia affected your experience as an author?

AG: This is an amazing town. We have lots and lots of talented writers here – and it is great. The biggest support for me is to live in place where this stuff is valued and appreciated.

JO: What are you working on now?

AG: I’m working on a new novel set in Maine in the 1970’s and 80’s. It is inspired very obliquely by the book Man on a Wire by Philippe Petit. It’s about friendship, gravity, punk, and the power of dreams.