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.)
Music is a hallmark of this novel, too through the songs coming out of the radio, to the ballads and blues sung in the family restaurant, to the arias Frederick's son Joseph sings to woo his wife. Do you hear me, Broadway? This story would make a delightful musical. Readers also will be moved by this novelist's personal story. George was born in Great Britain but now lives in Missouri. Sometime soon, he'll be sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America.
In this inviting debut novel by a British émigré about several generations of a family seeking to become "good Americans," two young lovers, Frederick Meisenheimer and Jette Furst, emigrate from Germany to the small town of Beatrice, MO, in 1904. George captures both the good and bad qualities of small-town living as he deftly brings Beatrice to life through eloquent portraits of its residents: among them, a fiery preacher who vows to stop shaving until the family patriarch returns to church and a dour dwarf whose beautiful wife captivates the town's young men. The Meisenheimers' risky friendship with an African American jazz musician from New Orleans is particularly moving, and the power of music to help people connect is a recurring theme. VERDICT Despite some dark moments, the book's overall tone is warm and nostalgic as the couple's grandson tells his family's story. George's narrator is bland when compared with his more colorful relatives, and this causes the novel to lose steam once the focus is on his own experiences rather than those of his parents and grandparents. Nonetheless, this memorable and well-written exploration of one family's search for acceptance in America should strongly appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas and historical fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 8/8/11.]—Mara Bandy, Champaign P.L., IL
An attorney originally from England, first-time novelist George offers a love song to his adopted state of Missouri in this multigenerational saga of the Meisenheimers from their arrival as German immigrants in 1904 up to the present. Frederick and already pregnant Jette marry on board the boat that brings them to New Orleans, where they immediately experience the kindness of strangers from a Polish Jew and an African-American cornet player. Large, easygoing Frederick immediately falls in love with America. Jette, who instigated their flight, finds herself homesick for the world she wanted to escape. They settle in Beatrice, a small Missouri farming town with many German immigrants, where their baby Joseph is born. A few years later comes his sister Rosa. Frederick opens a bar that thrives, but his marriage to Jette falters. When the United States enters World War I, Frederick enlists—George only glancingly touches the uncomfortable irony that Frederick is fighting against Germans when he is killed—so Jette takes over the bar. Prohibition arrives in 1920, and so does Lomax, the black cornet player from New Orleans. He helps Jette turn the bar into a restaurant offering a mix of German and Cajun specialties and becomes a surrogate father to Rosa and Joseph. But Lomax, who is doing a little bootlegging on the side, ends up murdered, his cornet stolen. Joseph runs the restaurant, now a diner, with Cora. Rosa becomes a spinster teacher. Cora and Joseph have four sons whom Joseph, who inherited Frederick's love of music, turns into a barbershop quartet. Second son James is the novel's narrator, and once he starts describing what he actually remembers, the tone changes. The melodramas of James and his brothers' lives—sexual escapades, religious crises, even the big secret ultimately revealed—are more complicated but less compelling than his parents' and grandparents'. At times the novel feels like a fictionalized historical catalogue, but there are lovely moments of humor and pathos that show real promise.
“There’s plenty of storytelling charm on display here, with echoes of John Irving’s humane zaniness.”—The New York Times Book Review
“What does it mean to be a good citizen? A good member of a family? In A Good American, George considers both questions with humor, compassion, and grace. A beautifully written novel, laced with history and music.” —Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven
“This lush, epic tale of one family’s journey from immigrants to good Americans had me alternately laughing and crying, but always riveted. It’s a rich, rare treat of a book, and Alex George is a first-rate talent.” —Sara Gruen, New York Times bestselling author of Water for Elephants and Ape House
"As epic as an opera, as intimate as a lullaby, A Good American swept me through an entire century of triumph and tragedy with the wonderful Meisenheimer family...Alex George has created that rare and beautiful thing—a novel I finished and immediately wanted to start again."—Eleanor Brown, New York Times bestselling author of The Weird Sisters
“A sweeping, lush intergenerational novel about a family…learning to live in twentieth-century America.”—O, The Oprah Magazine