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July 2000

Made in the U.S.A.

Two protagonists flourish in the "land of opportunity"

By Ursula Hegi
Simon and Schuster 2000

German-born author Ursula Hegi has an undisputable talent for depicting life in Germany. Her latest novel though, The Vision of Emma Blau, takes her writing stateside by telling the story of Stefan Blau, a young German boy of 13 with an ardent passion for America. The ambitious young Stefan even learns 40 English words a day in preparation for his new life. But, after failing to convince his parents to let him follow his destiny by traveling abroad, he runs away from home to pursue his American dream. He spends his adolescence in New York City learning the lessons of life and the skills of the restaurant business from coworkers and friends from all walks of life. By the time he leaves New York to settle in New Hampshire he has developed a strong character and a hardened exterior.

In New Hampshire Stefan builds the life he always dreamed of as well as a lavish apartment building, which becomes his passion. He experiences the loss of wives and a child as well as the joy of the birth of his children before bringing his childhood friend Helene from Germany to America to be his third wife and to care for his children. The sad emotional distance between the couple and the small triumphs of Helene’s growth are the most moving and compelling parts of the story. Most interesting and entertaining are the very accurate details and description Hegi brings to her novel when revealing the dynamics of this German relationship. Helene dutifully takes the responsibility of raising Stefan’s children, but deeply resents her new husband for the burden.

Unfortunately, this colorful and lucid writing begins to lag severely about midway through the book. Armed with interesting characters — a gay son, a son with an eating disorder and a daughter in love with a priest — Hegi loses focus and fails to bring intimacy to these personalities. By the time the third generation of this family hits the scene, the pages are filled with endless, hollow descriptions of characters the reader doesn’t much care about. Their strife and conflicts seem much more like whining than drama. This seasoned and poetic author should have known when to quit. Had the story ended one generation earlier she would have created another moving volume, which resonates with her fans for a long time afterward. It’s too bad Hegi couldn’t use the two words of every great novel early enough — The End. <<< Lisa Mcalister

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin 2000

In his insightful and surprising novel, The Human Stain, Philip Roth returns to the heated atmosphere of public indignation at the sex scandal surrounding U.S. President Clinton just two years ago. In a similar politically and morally charged climate a different drama unfolds, yet one equally driven by America’s “ecstasy of sanctimony.”

The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman Silk, an aging classics professor and dean at Athena, a fictional Massachusetts college, whom Roth describes as “an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of a warrior, something of an operator, hardly the prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek.” When Silk innocently refers to two continually absent Afro-American students as “spooks,” his enemies denounce the remark as a racial slur and launch a campaign to oust the allegedly racist Jewish professor. Ultimately, the faculty manages to force Silk to resign. At age 71, Silk begins a passionate affair with a woman less than half his age suddenly propelling him back into life. The fact that his lover is an illiterate janitor from Athena College makes their secret relationship all the more explosive. It turns out, however, that Silk guards an even bigger secret: for almost his entire adult life he has pretended to be a white Jew, while he is, in fact, a very light-skinned black man. This astonishing twist early in the book lends the story a whole new, indeed almost surreal, complexion. Roth makes us see Coleman Silk as a man who takes the American Dream, the promise to be anything you aspire to be, a step further, maybe too far, choosing to be “unalterably separated from what he was handed at birth, free to struggle at being free like any human being would wish to be free.” For Silk, this exhilarating notion of freedom means liberating himself from what his father had to endure — “The impositions. The humiliations. The obstructions.” Yet, 50 years later, everything he once tried to escape comes back to haunt him.

In his long career as one of America’s foremost writers, Roth has never tired of denouncing hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and he has probably never come closer to feeling the pulse of America than in the incisive writing that shapes this book. <<<

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