By Philip Roth, published 2001
I finished reading this book a few weeks ago, but I have had trouble formulating an opinion that isn’t tainted by my visceral dislike for the narrator.
David Kapesh (a character from an earlier Roth novel) is evidently an attractive middle-aged man who left his wife and child in the 60s so that he could take full advantage of the sexual revolution. He stands by that decision, decades later, as he continues to reap the benefits of women embracing their sexuality: he has affairs with his female students, but only after the term ends and he ceases to be their formal teacher. It all goes swimmingly for Kapesh, except for the fact that his son loathes him, until he falls for Consuela. The novel is a reflection on their affair and the years after in which Kapesh could think of practically nothing but her. Why? Her breasts, apparently.
Perhaps it could also be her fiery personality, her devotion to her family, the nostalgia she feels for her home country of Cuba, her intelligence…but Kapesh talks mainly about her breasts.
It seems that his struggle to overcome his obsession with Consuela might be exacerbated by his own aging, by his near acknowledgment that his appeal to young women is fleeting. He (and everyone else) is a dying animal, and so too are all the women he entertains, including those who return to him after years of failed relationships. Elena, in particular, was heartbreaking. She was “up from the bottom of the working-class by dint of immense fortitude” but hated dating and had yet to meet anyone appealing. “‘I’ve given it a fair shot,’ she said, getting teary, ‘haven’t I, David? Nineteen dates?'” (Oh Elena, nineteen is just scratching the surface).
So to combat his aging and his depression, Kapesh lectures Elena on the virtues of being alone, and his son on how to handle his pregnant girlfriend: “‘Living in a country like ours, whose key documents are all about emancipation, all directed at guaranteeing individual liberty, living in a free system that is basically indifferent to how you behave as long as the behavior is lawful, the misery that comes your way is most likely to be self-generated.'” One wonders if even Roth could hear the irony.
The novel has a surprising conclusion, one in which Kapesh actually appears capable of caring about Consuela beyond her looks and forging a true attachment to another person. But I could not get past the impossibility of her behavior toward him. Consuela’s words and actions could only exist in Kapesh’s dreams. One star.