I made a deal with my wife--I'll read a Didion if you read a Roth.
Several years ago, before I had children, I tore through a ton of Joan Didion’s work. I began with Play It As It Lays and ended with The Year of Magical Thinking. The latter was one of my all-time, no kidding, broke-me-in-half-for-a-long-time-afterwards favorite books. I’m actually afraid to reread The Year of Magical Thinking for fear of tarnishing my original impression of the book.
Upon my recommendation, Aaron read it and said “Hey. If you like this, you should read Patrimony.” (insert that riff from Reading Rainbow that used to play at the end of “Don’t take my word for it…”).
I like Philip Roth. Before this, I had read Goodbye Columbus (my personal favorite), Portnoy’s Complaint, "The Conversion of the Jews," and three-fourths of American Pastoral. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read Patrimony. How much mourning literature can one person handle, right?
Recently, I was in the right frame of mind and gave it a shot. Here’s what I thought:
Patrimony was engrossing. I found myself reading at night until I couldn’t possibly keep my eyes open anymore. Though the story is mainly about the illness that eventually killed Philip Roth’s father, it is just as much about the life his father led long before he ever got sick. One incident in the present would trigger an entire chapter of memories.
The experiences Roth had while caring for his father made me think of my own family that took care of and just buried my grandmother. My parents were in Roth’s shoes. It is heartbreaking and, for most people, indescribable. Philp Roth, however, is a master of description. The shaving mug. The Houston Astronauts. The giving things away. The tenderness you only see when a child takes care of a parent (or vice versa). It all struck a nerve. None of it seemed contrived.
If you haven’t read this book (and you aren’t yourself in mourning), read it.
Here’s a little bit of the man himself reading an excerpt. Could there be more bottles of water in front of him?