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Letting Go, Philip Roth, Random House, 1962, 630 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Newly discharged from the Korean War army, reeling from his mother's recent death, freed from old attachments and hungrily seeking others, Gabe Wallach is drawn to Paul Herz, a fellow graduate student in literature, and to Libby, Paul's moody, intense wife. Gabe's desire to be connected to the ordered "world of feeling" that he finds in books is first tested vicariously by the anarchy of the Herzes' struggles with responsible adulthood and then by his own eager love affairs. Driven by the desire to live seriously and act generously, Gabe meets an impassable test in the person of Martha Reganhart, a spirited, outspoken, divorced mother of two, a formidable woman who, according to critic James Atlas, is masterfully portrayed with "depth and resonance."
This was the fifth of books published in 1962 I read in August. I had set out to read 10 but a couple were as long as two or three books put together including this one. I enjoyed every page and found it easy to read. Letting Go was Roth's first novel, preceded by Goodbye Columbus (a novella and story collection.)
I know there is a contingent of readers who balk at reading novels by "old white men" and I sort of get it. But the fact is these old white men are still read because they could write well.
In Letting Go we again get a picture of life in 1950s America. This novel is from the perspective of two non-practicing Jewish men in their 20s and 30s who are carrying the weight of their upbringings including the expectations of their parents, and are perhaps the first generation from Jewish immigrant families to be moving into social assimilation in what was a deeply antisemitic society.
Gabe Wallach is a comfortably well off young man, teaching English on the faculty of the University of Chicago, though he has enough money left to him by his mother that he would not really need to work. He feels guilty about his relative good fortune, guilty about not wanting to spend much time with his aging father back in New York City, guilty about being attracted to the wife of his colleague Paul Herz; guilt is his driving force. Because of that, he keeps getting himself into ill-advised situations.
Paul Herz, another tormented character, is a Jew who married a Christian woman, though neither of them are religious in the least. Both sets of their parents cut off all support and connection due to the interfaith marriage. The couple is struggling financially and emotionally so Gabe tries to help them with devastating results.
I was reminded of Stoner by John Williams, especially by Paul's wife Libby, who in her own way is as neurotic as Stoner's wife was. Letting Go however has quite a bit more humor in between the pathos.
My favorite character is Martha Reganhart, the woman Gabe considers as a prospective wife. She is by far the strongest person in the story. While Roth is often charged with misogyny, I would say that he presents believable female characters from the viewpoint of a man who is clearly trying to figure them out.
All in all, one of the best novels I have read from 1962.
(Letting Go is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)