Book Review: Nemesis

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It was impossible to believe that Alan was lying in that pale, plain pine box merely from having caught a summertime disease. That box from which you cannot force your way out. That box in which a twelve-year-old was twelve years old forever. The rest of us live and grow older by the day, but he remains twelve. Millions of years go by, and he is still twelve.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

My friends and I are now in our mid-twenties and tackling our first jobs out of school, and (at least for me) confronting the nine to five lifestyle (well, for me, more like seven to three). At first, I was bored by the repetitiveness of each day, my habits and routines. However, I’ve learned to find comfort and a sense of productivity in my routines. Repetitiveness is a key factor in many feelings I strive towards on a daily basis: a sense of comfort, productivity, and stability.

That’s a roundabout way to segue into how I’ve enjoyed my routine of discovering new books at the library lately. In this case, I simply was attracted to the cover (a bright, tempting yellow). With a title like Nemesis, I expected a sci-fi title. Instead, Nemesis is the story of Bucky Cantor, a young man who’s been marked exempt from military duty during World War II. A new grad, Bucky becomes a playground director in his hometown, during a balmy summer where the local children are succumbing to a polio epidemic.

At 280 pages, this is a fairly short novel, and one I could see polishing off on a hot, lazy summer day (much like the ones Bucky spends playing baseball with his charges). When reading this, I had a similar feeling as to when I read Revolutionary Road or The Remains of the Day: a weird sense of nostalgia for a time before even my parents were born. We all long for a time that seems familiar, and I guess having read so many WWII and post-WWII novels makes this time feel familiar to me.

The novel’s plot, while dealing with an epidemic, is not the stuff a Hollywood blockbuster, and its philosophical bent can get a bit heavy-handed. It’s a quiet, introspective novel. I loved the thoughtful, detailed prose, and the characters–realistic in their personalities and their reactions to the events around them. Imagine my surprise when Philip Roth, a writer I’d never heard of before (shame on me), turned out to be a Pulitzer winner. It’s easy to see why. Nemesis is masterful in its insight on human behavior, and is thoroughly engaging while not resorting to any cheap tricks plot or dialogue-wise.

The medical nature of the spread of polio isn’t a huge focus in this book – or, rather, the focus is the characters’ lack of knowledge on how polio is spread, and their terror around it. There are several people in my life who suffered polio at a young age and now walk with a slight limp. For me, it was thought-provoking to glimpse a world where polio is regarded with such fear and mystery, and reminded me of my privilege to live in the circumstances that I do.

YES OR NO?: YES. Short and bittersweet, Nemesis features detailed, weighty prose, a thought-provoking plot, and realistic, relatable characters. I’m looking forward to reading Roth’s American Pastoral when I get a chance!

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