Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New American Classic: The Son by Phillipp Meyer

The Son
by Phillipp Meyer
Reviewed by Shannon Nemer

Philipp Meyer's The Son focuses on three generations of The McCulloughs, a family made wealthy through years of oil drilling on their vast Texas ranch.  In alternating chapters, the novel begins with the family's patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by the Comanches prior to the Civil War and slowly adopted by the tribe.  Haunted by an incident involving his landholding Mexican neighbors and unwilling to fully prescribe to the McCullough way of life, Eli's son Peter struggles to find his place in the early 20th century.  Jeanne Anne, Eli's great-granddaughter, looks back from modern day on her life as a fiercely independent businesswoman, wife and mother.
It occurred to me, as I watched the oil flow down the hill, that soon there will be nothing left to subdue the pride of men.  There is nothing we will not have mastered, except, of course, ourselves.
Meyer's novel starts small, allowing the reader to navigate both the McCullough family tree and the book's structure in short snapshots, but gradually builds to beautiful chapters that more deeply explore each character.  The Son is a perfect example of successful plot-building with a non-traditional narrative; despite a jumping timeline, it is easy to follow and feels like a fully-examined world.

The Son breaches a number of topics in its journey through the centuries--success, power, feminism, war, legacy--and seamlessly weaves them into the plot, making connections thorough the bloodlines of his central characters.  Each generation must live with the choices of the one before them while also trying to carve out a life of their own.

That struggle to find a compromise between the ideals of her great-grandfather, her father and the modern world is what makes Jeanne Anne such an incredible character; now one of my favorites from my reading history.  Meyer's ability to get into the mind of a strong-minded woman questioning her place in society, both as a single girl and later a married mother, is uncanny.  Yet, like all of the novel's characters, he holds her accountable for her choices, leaving her vulnerable to tragedy.
The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and themselves been destroyed by the Muslims.  Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese.  You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story.  And yet here she was.  Breathing, having these thoughts.  The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.
A big read that begs to be both devoured and savored, The Son is an epic novel of a family's history that will soon find itself on shelves alongside our treasured American classics.

Shannon Nemer runs the River City Reading blog (where a version of this review first appeared).  You can find her on Twitter and Facebook or wherever good books are to be found.

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