America America
by Ethan Canin

A Review by Scott finished Aug. 8, 2009

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

America America is a beautifully written book that is full of insight, especially for someone who has just had a child and is often thinking about what being a father means. One of the major themes throughout the book is how our past is defined not only by our own actions and our memory of those actions, but also by the actions of our children. By seeing them experience similar things, or realizing that they will experience similar things, we must reconsider the significance of our own actions at the time because of how they must have impacted our own parents.

"What you aren't prepared for is the way children change your past, too. That's the thing. Everyone knows that they change your future, but to see them in their innocence - in their cribs and then on their bicycles and then in their cars, at their soccer games and then their recitals and soon enough at their graduations and their weddings - to see them through all of that is to know that everything you have ever done, every act you've ever had a part in, has another meaning as well, and that it is both greater and more terrible than the one you knew. Not just the meaning it had for you but the one it had for someone's child, as well. That's what came back to me now, more than anything else. The unavoidable truth of that. That all one's deeds - those of honor and those of duplicity and those of veniality and those of ruin - that all one's deeds live doubly. I can only marvel at the forbearance of my own parents and of others that are part of this story" (13).

What is most impressive, however, is not just that Canin presents this profound insight to us on page 13, but rather the way he uses this concept as the base for the entire novel. He is not just telling a story of a young man involved in a political scandal. Instead, he weaves together various viewpoints and time periods in order to present a history that develops in this fractured way. We see both the initial response of Corey the boy, and then the understanding of Corey the father. In Corey/Canin's own words: "The revelation, no matter how often it comes, is always a surprise: that our pasts our remade like that, in pieces and shadows" (321).

In addition to this insight and its presence in the very structure of the book, Canin also does an excellent job of building believable, engaging characters. Though they are not all likeable, they are all a pleasure to read about. I even caught myself thinking I was reading a story from the author's own past, rather than a complete fiction. In fact, I realized while reading this that I love books written from the first person perspective. It always makes me feel much more connected with the main character, and will usually result in me getting more caught up in the story.

In spite of beautiful writing, excellent characters, and profound insights, this was not a perfect book. My main complaint was that, from the beginning, Corey makes references to the fact that some major event happened to him when he was younger. However, it is not the event itself that is the point of this book, but rather understanding what the event meant to Corey and those around him, and how it changed him.

So, instead of numerous vague references to this life-altering event, I think the novel would have worked better if it was revealed from the beginning what the event was. This would have allowed the reader to keep that fact at the back of their mind throughout and to filter everything that happens through this knowledge. I would have enjoyed the book more had Canin made this revelation earlier because, in the end, I had anticipated the events that served as a climax for so long that I ended up being disappointed. I was expecting so much that when I wasn't surprised by what happened, I was let-down. If, however, I had known all along what was happening I could have focused more on how it affected Corey as a character, and less on the event itself.

This one relatively minor complaint, however, should not deter anyone from reading this book. It is by far one of the best books I have read in the last year, with deeply nuanced characters, wonderful imagery, and interesting insights to share. Anyone who enjoyed A Prayer For Owen Meany should read this book as well. I recommend this without hesitation or qualification.

On a side note, there are clearly connections between Senator Bonwiller and Ted Kennedy. However, I am not versed enough on the actual (and assumed) actions of Ted Kennedy to talk about it at this point. I'm sure someone interested in this, however, would find yet another aspect of this book to enjoy. Also, I just have to say that the way Canin hides the fact that is Clara that Corey ends up marrying was clever. Throughout the first ¾ of the book I assumed that if he wasn't telling us the name of his wife, it must not be who we expect it to be. There was just enough foreshadowing (the comment that deciding to give the gift to Clara may have changed his life forever, and the way he began giving more details about Clara's appearance) to imply that is was Clara, but never enough to know for sure. Then, suddenly, he starts referring to his wife as Clara. Very subtle, and extremely enjoyable.

Favorite Quote

"After all, if children don't make you see things differently - first bringing them into the world and then watching them go out into it - then God help you."

Ethan Canin in America America

First Line

"When you've been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened, no matter how long it's been absent from the news, you're fated, nonetheless, to always search it out."

Ethan Canin the First Line of America America

Originally Published June 24, 2008

Paperback edition:

458 pages - May 9, 2009

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