Up until the last thirty pages, this book reads like a wonderfully funny and bittersweet coming of age novel, though there are hints along the way that it is something more. Marcus Messner, a young man from Newark, New Jersey, goes off to college in Winesburg, Ohio. The love of his father, a kosher butcher, has become smothering. Perhaps because it is 1950, with memories of World War II still fresh and the Korean War underway, the father sees the world as horribly dangerous. He insists on keeping close tabs on his son and will not allow him to develop as an independent human being. Therefore Marcus, who might otherwise have been content attending a local college, leaves home. Entering a conservative, largely Protestant milieu, he suffers culture shock. He clashes with the college’s dean of men, who insists he try to fit in more and not just study but have a social life. In fact, Marcus is already in the midst of a romance. A young woman has introduced him to sex and rocked his world. Olivia, whose psychological demons have led her to attempt suicide, is clearly not the sort of girl his parents hoped he would meet at college. Despite this, Roth leads us to believe that all will be well with Marcus, if the dean and his father just get off his back. A diligent student who plans on a legal career, his future seems assured. Then an unexpected chain of events intervenes.
Philip Roth excels in breathing life into a time, place, and cast of characters. In this moving work, among his best, he manages to encompass both comedy and gut-wrenching grief.