Book Review | Letting Go by Philip Roth


It’s not difficult to figure out why I love Letting Go. Philip Roth has long been my favorite author and this book takes place in both Iowa City and Chicago (the former I lived in previously, in the latter I currently reside) and allusions to classic literature abound. I also have a thing for first novels and this is indeed Roth’s first. This was my third reading of Letting Go and, much the way I can find new things in every viewing of The Room, that fantastic masterpiece of a movie, I found new nuances and twists this time around.letting go

The story begins at the University of Iowa, where both Gabe Wallach, our mostly-shiftless protagonist, and Paul Herz, a secondary character in name only, are working on their Masters. In some ways Gabe and Paul are similar – their love of literature and interest in careers involving academia being the most compelling – but in many they are polar opposites. Paul marries early, to a sickly and difficult Libby, while Gabe shirks responsibility at every turn.

The point of view is constantly shifting, though we return to Gabe’s mind quite frequently. One of the most impressive things about Roth is his ability to write from the perspective of so many varying characters so believably. From a 7 year-old-girl who accidentally pushes her brother to his death, to the pregnant and desperate Theresa Haug, each of his characters is rich and their narratives convincing.

As I followed Gabe and Paul’s lives from their initial schooling through to their professorships at the University of Chicago, I was struck by the hopelessness of it all. Despite Paul’s best intentions, despite the fact that he’s always doing the ‘right thing’, always taking the path he’s ‘supposed to’, he ends up miserable, with a wife he no longer cares to have a conversation with.

Gabe, on the other hand, avoids ties at all costs and goes through life with a series of mistresses, some of whom he’s serious about, but most of whom he quickly forgets. In the end though, Gabe is just as miserable and regretful as Paul is.

This book really resonated with me this time around because I keep finding myself second-guessing decisions I’ve made and the path I’ve chosen. Roth has made it clear to me that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try – or don’t try – we’re all miserable in the end.

I don’t think I’ve ever recommended this book to anyone, even though it is my favorite novel. It’s dark, it’s depressing, it makes me sick to my stomach at moments. Yet there is a humanity and a dry humor that keep me coming back. I work hard to maintain some sense of hopefulness but it is not my natural state. My natural state is much like that of Gabe Wallach:  living my life in slow motion and with constant regret.

Currently reading: The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter

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