Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-11-21
- Reviewer: Staff
George’s debut novel is a sentimental, lively, and sad family saga spanning four generations, from a couple’s flight out of Germany in 1904 to the hope that their great-grandchildren hold for the future. The story is told by James Martin Meisenheimer, the grandson of the original immigrant couple, the unusually tall Jette and the unabashedly rotund and red-bearded Frederick. This unlikely pair falls in love in Hanover and flees (a mother, not a war) to the U.S. with Jette pregnant. She gives birth to James’s father, Joseph, in Beatrice, Mo., a small town whose residents are capable of both kindness and hatred. Frederick opens a bar, then volunteers for the army and is killed in WWI. Jette turns the bar into a restaurant during Prohibition, a place that feeds the townspeople—with food, yes, but also music—for decades. When James calls his grandmother’s life “one long opera,” full of “love, great big waves of it, crashing ceaselessly against the rocks of life,” he is very much a mouthpiece for author George (and not unlike Styron’s Stingo), whose debut chronicles much of the 20th century through the eyes of one family. George, a British lawyer who has practiced law in London, Paris, and Columbia, Mo., where he now lives, evokes smalltown life lovingly, sometimes disturbingly, and examines the ties of family, the complications of home, and the moments of love and happiness that arrive no matter what. Agent: Emma Sweeney Agency. (Feb.)
Hitting the high notes with a musical debut
It’s often said that our country is a melting pot, and we all came from somewhere else. In his U.S. debut, Alex George, an Englishman practicing law in Missouri, portrays this quintessentially American experience.
With a soundtrack of jazz, opera and close-harmony singing, he follows a family of German origin through the small joys—and devastating blows—that make up a life.
In 2003, George had already published several novels in the U.K. when he moved to Columbia, Missouri, with his wife, a native of the state. He was struggling to write another book when he realized that most people have never had the experience of moving to a new country. Around the same time, he heard a barbershop quartet perform at a funeral, and the pieces of his novel clicked into place. He began working on the story from 5 to 7 a.m. every morning before work and eventually sold the novel to a top U.S. publisher (Amy Einhorn Books, the Putnam imprint which published The Help).
As George told me from his law office in Columbia, “Immigration and close-harmony singing—those are the pillars on which the book was built.” Or, as he recalls with a laugh, “Back when people would say, what are you writing about, I would say, well, it’s kind of a combination of The Godfather Part II and The Sound of Music. Some of the looks I got when I said that were absolutely priceless.”
The result of this unusual mix is A Good American, a spirited story that begins with a song in Hanover, Germany, in 1904. After Frederick Meisenheimer serenades Jette Furst with an aria from La Bohème, the two fall in love. When Jette becomes pregnant, they decide to seek their fortune elsewhere, since Jette’s parents don’t approve of the relationship. Though they had originally planned to go to New York, they end up on a ship bound for New Orleans. As Jette says, “New York, New Orleans, what’s the difference? They’re both New. That’s good enough.”
Once they arrive in America, Frederick and Jette settle in the small fictional town of Beatrice, Missouri, where Jette gives birth to a son, and Frederick takes a job at the town’s only tavern. Their decision to stay in Beatrice sets in motion the epic story of the Meisenheimer family, which spans the 20th century and includes big personalities, shocking plot twists and multiple love stories. Not to mention moonshine, illegal betting, competitive chess games and religious conversion.
George’s own first trip to America was a journey he’ll never forget. He had come to New York for a friend’s wedding and thought the city was “one of those rare places that is just like it is in the movies.” On that trip he reconnected with the woman who would become his wife, and he commuted across the Atlantic for the next six months, until they married and moved to London. They relocated to Missouri a few years later.
Much of the early plot of A Good American revolves around Jette and Frederick’s varied reactions to life in a new country: Jette desperately misses her family and Hanover, but Frederick unequivocally loves his new home, embracing the music of famed cornetist Buddy Bolden and learning English as quickly as possible. George, who is in the process of becoming an American citizen, says that “as immigrant experiences go, mine was about as easy as it could be.” He knew the language and had studied law at Oxford, but he admits it was still a hard process.
At the time of our conversation, George had passed his naturalization interview and was waiting for details on his oath-taking ceremony. He reminded me of a scene in the novel when Jette cries as she reads her oath to become a U.S. citizen. Reflecting on what it will be like to give up citizenship in his home country, George says, “It’s kind of amazing that I’m finding myself in exactly that position, just as the book is being published. I know how Jette feels; I am giving up a little bit of who I am.” Still, he says of America, “I adore this place.”
The novel’s title comes from a conversation Frederick has with Joseph Wall, a doctor who is kind to the Meisenheimers as they navigate their way through Missouri. Wall’s advice to Frederick is to “go and be a good American.” Frederick lives out this promise by enlisting to serve in World War I, while Jette protests the war in the town square, an action George thinks is “just as important as what Frederick did.”
What constitutes being a good American? “It’s all about freedom. Not just yours but your fellow citizens’,” George says. “The Constitution is an extraordinary document, and if we could all live according to the principles that are embedded in it, then that would be a hell of a life.”
A Good American focuses on the seemingly inconsequential choices that direct the course of a life—or, as George eloquently puts it in the novel, how “every life was a galaxy of permutations and possibilities from which a single thread would be picked out and followed, for better or for worse.”
One great joy of the book is the ever-present hum of music in the background. George has been hooked on jazz since he read Philip Larkin’s poem “For Sidney Bechet”— about a jazz saxophonist—in an English class when he was 15. He also loves Puccini and had Frederick woo Jette with an aria because he’s such a “larger-than-life character”—he needed to be doing “the full sort of heart-pounding-on-your-chest-type-thing.” It is a pleasure to read about such a range of music, and George writes with clear enthusiasm.
Now, as he balances work on a new novel with fatherhood, his law practice and book promotion, George’s life has changed in other ways: He and the wife who brought him to Missouri are getting divorced.
Like his characters who keep returning to Beatrice, though, George says that moving away from Columbia is “unthinkable” thanks to his children (Hallam, 10, and Catherine, 6). He then evokes one of the Meisenheimers who leaves Missouri, thinking he’s gone forever, but comes back. Whether you’re in a home country or an adopted one, George says, “you get pulled back by family.” Likewise, readers will be pulled into A Good American—and perhaps be inspired to learn how and why their own family first came to U.S. soil.