Let’s cut to the chase. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America has a lot to say. It deals with big themes. But it lacks punch. I had to make myself read it in a couple of hits for fear I’d never pick it up again — and I haven’t had to do that with a book for a long time.
Essentially Roth has created a fascinating and wholly believable history that never was: an America that sided with the Nazis during the Second World War. He makes the renowned aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh the 33rd president (he defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election), who implements a systematic program to destabilise the Jewish enclaves within the major cities, such as New York.
Riots and mayhem ensue, but this doesn’t properly happen until the last chapter of the book. Instead, the reader must plough their way through a relatively boring family history, seeing it through the eyes of a young boy, a character who just so happens to be named Philip Roth.
There is no doubt that The Plot Against America is a magnificent story dealing with important and relevant issues. (I had the weight of this on my mind as I turned each page.) It’s a very scholarly book, with loads of insightful and interesting footnotes that history buffs will love.
But the emotion and foreboding I had expected to resonate off the page were nowhere to be found. I did not feel for any of the characters. I did not sense their anxiety. I did not sense their fear. If I had have, I’m sure that I would have loved this book.
In short, this book lacks the emotional force that would have elevated it from a good read to a truly brilliant one. Readers looking for a far more menacing read along a similar theme would be best advised to read Robert Harris’s excellent Fatherland (1993), which is gripping, thought-provoking and chilling to the core.