A Good American by Alex George
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam • $25.95 • ISBN 9780399157592
on sale February 7, 2012


This time of year is always about looking back—what were my favorite books of the year? It's fun to catalog and rank a year's worth of reading, but it's also refreshing to look forward: What books of 2012 are going to be truly special?

One such book is Alex George's A Good American. George is an English lawyer who lives in Missouri, and A Good American is his first novel to be published in the United States.

Like the author, the main characters of A Good American are immigrants—Jette and Frederick Meisenheimer, two Germans who board a ship to New Orleans (by chance; they meant to go to New York) in 1904, and end up settling in Beatrice, Missouri.

George follows the Meisenheimer family for a century, during wars, deaths, births, broken hearts and young love, Prohibition, successes, failures. One of the joys of this story is George's ability to evoke the power of music from the era, ranging from Barbershop quartets to the sweet sounds of the cornet and piano.

This was the rare book that made me laugh and cry, pause to listen to songs on YouTube—then seriously consider taking a reading break down at Nashville's Gerst Haus restaurant (I refrained, but I'm still craving German and Cajun food).

The novel comes out on February 7. Here's a little preview, after Jette first hears the music of an old acquaintance:

As Jette listened to the languorous unfurling of melody, she remembered her brief time in New Orleans. Lomax had been the first friendly face they met in America. Without him they might never have made it to Missouri. She wondered what path her life might have followed if the man on the stage had not appeared when he did. The thought occurred to her that, like the improvised melodies that Lomax was spinning from the bell of his horn, 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. When the music ended, Jette made a choice of her own that sent our family careening down an unlikely path that only now has acquired the reassuring gloss of inevitability. By such delicate threads do all our existences hang.

What do you think? Will you look for A Good American in February? (By the way, the novel has been compared to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—and I wouldn't disagree!) What are you reading today?

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