three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-L'AmericaWhen Beth meets Cesare on a trip to Greece in 1982, it’s love at first sight. But despite their mutual infatuation, they can’t seem to overcome their different cultural backgrounds. Beth, raised by her hippie father in a Pennsylvania commune, represents America’s footloose independence. But Cesare, heir to a 500-year-old Italian banking dynasty, comes from the European aristocracy. While Beth admires European society and Cesare adores American drive-ins, jazz, and football, the pull of their very different pasts leads to false promises, separate lives, and a two-decade-long affair—until 9/11 intervenes.
Harcourt. 304 pages. $25. ISBN: 0151011710

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"As an American ingénue gallivanting around a Europe whose ritualized manners she can’t completely grasp, Beth is walking in the footsteps of Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer. McPhee has plenty of fun updating Jamesian tensions for the NATO era." Jeff Turrentine

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"L’America is a story of ‘what ifs,’ and of course ‘what ifs’ matter not at all; what matters are the decisions we have already made. … [It conveys] on an intimate scale the cultural and political factors that are imposed on all of us and were manifested so violently on Sept. 11." Buzz Poole

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"McPhee pitch-perfectly captures the discombobulating trance of first love, the rapturous power that lasts through a lifetime. … McPhee is an exquisite writer, and L’America is dizzyingly hypnotic, roaming back and forth across time, telling the story through Cesare, Beth and, later, through Beth’s grown daughter, Valeria." Caroline Leavitt

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The novel’s plot is so circular that it undercuts any surprises or dramatic tension." Jane Ciabattari

Seattle Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]n constantly circling back on itself, McPhee keeps jerking us out of the immediate experience of its impassioned, ambivalent young lovers, and into a schematic Henry James update of the unbridgeable gap between static, tradition-bound Old Europe, and reckless, freewheeling Young America." Misha Berson

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Martha McPhee’s ungainly new novel, L’America, reads like a shotgun wedding between Henry James and Nora Roberts, between James’s international theme (probing the tension between American innocence and European sophistication) and the sappy conventions and even sappier language of a romance novel. … The reader does not care whether Beth and Cesare end up together." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Like Henry James, Martha McPhee, author of Bright Angel Time and the National Book Award–nominated Gorgeous Lies, asks big questions about European tradition and American "newness," while offering an absorbing account of first love. Critics praised McPhee’s superb writing, pitch-perfect dialogue, and flesh-and-blood characters. (Only Michiko Kakutani asked why readers should care about such selfish and stubborn creations.) L’America circles around itself in a layered, multidecade narrative, which, while adding depth to the story, also diminishes the drama. Some clichés—Beth is "America" herself—ring false. L’America is at its best when exploring cross-cultural expectations.

Also by the author

Gorgeous Lies (2002): In this follow-up to Bright Angel Time, the 1960s utopian visions of Anton, the family patriarch, have not been fully realized. As Anton slowly dies, his "blended" family gathers around him to make peace with past resentments.