These are two famous authors. Roth may be the greatest living American novelist. McEwen is a giant on the current British literary scene. Both are great reads for someone traveling in Germany!
Ian McEwen’s The Innocent is a 1950s Berlin-setting spy novel in which the main character, Leonard, falls in love with a German woman. McEwen describes the romance with verve and colorful writing. The writing is gorgeous in many places. The plot didn’t grab me, though, and the ending — a copy of a tell-all letter discovered by the protagonist a few years after it was sent — seemed like something a fledgling teenage writer would do (hi there!). If you find yourself in Berlin, this is a good pick. If you want to read good turns-of-phrase, also a good pick. Otherwise, skip.
Phil Roth’s The Plot Against America is historical fiction. So it takes a reasonable grasp of U.S. history in order to know when Roth departs from reality and starts constructing his own terrifying, FDR-loses before WWII, anti-sementic reality. I’m embarrassed to say this is my first Roth book (I have a lot of catching up to do!). I now know what the fuss is about. In countless places Roth re-arranges conventional grammatical form to create sentences which just seem so perfect. The storyline kept me engaged the whole way, mostly because I found the immense auto-biographical detail so interesting. In my own book project I struggle with conveying the sheer totality of a few years of life — in all its wondrous detail — without resorting to mere description. I intend to turn to fiction writers to help me with understand how professionals give texture to events us mortal folk describe factually, and in a few paragraphs.
I don’t read much fiction. I’m more of a non-fiction guy. When I read fiction I only want to read the best, and McEwen and Roth certainly pass this bar with flying colors.