The Swede is a strikingly good-looking man, born blonde to a Jewish family in mid-20th century New Jersey, and is outstanding at everything he attempts (in particular, sports of all kinds), in addition to being a highly intelligent and sensitive person. His parents are second-generation Americans; his grandfather built an empire in the glove industry and passed his glove business down to the Swede's father, who in turn passed it to him. The Swede is admired his whole life for his sparkling good looks, energy, and luck. Though he is genteel and absolutely upstanding, he steps outside the bounds of his very traditional upbringing in deliberate ways: he marries a Protestant beauty queen, and chooses not to settle in any of the neighborhoods recommended by his parents as comfortable for Jews to inhabit, so that he and his family can live in a sprawling, sturdy, stone home that he imagines as the perfect place for his child to grow up and for he and his wife to grow old in. His wife raises cows as a way of occupying herself and identifies strongly with this activity as proof that she is not brainless and fragile, as many assume her to be, and so to escape the stigma that comes with her beauty queen past.
The story of the Swede is ostensibly relayed to us by Nathan Zuckerman, whom Roth uses in several novels as a character and as a framing device for the passing along of other stories. It is clear that Zuckerman could not know all the details of the story that unfolds in American Pastoral, but the book begins with his voice in the first person, and as it proceeds, it describes the Swede's inner thoughts and the occurrences in his life in the third person. The story tells the tragedy of the Swede's disillusionment after his daughter, Merry, commits the horrifying and unforeseeable act of bombing a post office as a form of protest against what she's come to see as a corrupt American system, represented by the government, its officers and behaviors, and by businessmen like her father. The story relates the bizarre tale of Merry's transformation from a charming, articulate, and generous child into a furious and rebellious teenager, and the attempts of the Swede, his wife, and the rest of their family to understand what could have gone so horribly wrong in Merry's life. The story reveals Merry's history of stuttering and its eventually traumatizing effect on her, her early questions posed to her (endlessly patient and indulgent) father about justice and the Vietnam War, her shock and apparent fascination with the self-immolations that were shown on television, and finally her complete emotional detachment from and rage against her parents and her entire social class. The bombing is a shock to everyone and is followed by years of Merry's being on the run from the law, leaving her parents ignorant to her whereabouts and with no way to contact her. During the years that she is gone, the Swede is tormented by questions of what he could have done better as a parent to prevent such a nightmare, and by the sadistic presence of Rita, a girl who materializes and verbally abuses the Swede on many occasions, claiming to know where Merry is hiding and torturing him with scant details and reports of Merry's hatred for him.
When the Swede finally locates his daughter, he is horrified by what she has become. Their reunion is fraught and he is unsure how to tell his wife, whose own history and response to the bombing is relayed to us in the story as well. By the end of the novel, the Swede's view of the world has been capsized, and his own sense of security and confidence that there is any right path is called seriously into question.
Best part of story, including ending:
It gives us an illuminating view into the divisions between generations of Americans that have led to major misunderstandings between grandparents, parents, and children. It is a gorgeous look at American culture and history as much as it is a deep penetration of the mind and the hearts of its characters.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was one in which the Swede's wife catches a glimpse of her husband walking through the apple trees he's cultivated on their land. She sees his love of the expansive land, and of the America that's made his life what it is, and feels an attraction to him and a love for him that is as cerebral as it is sexual.
Opinion about the main character:
The main character's problems and mental processes are very relatable and, often, heart-wrenching.