I was hesitant to even start The Plot Against America and within the first few pages I was audibly groaning. I didn't really want to read 391 pages of alternate history where the author takes his personal political philosophy and tries to pass it off as a story. But it was Philip Roth—the Philip Roth everyone has raved about for years, the Philip Roth I've managed to ignore all this time—and this, this is said to be one of his best books, especially in recent times. I had to see what all the talk was about.
But then Roth did something amazing. After those introductory pages setting up the story and the history, Roth slipped into the mind of his childhood narrator (named Philip Roth, whom I will refer to as “Lil' Phil”). Lil' Phil's perspective is what makes this novel great. He's a kid, and his view, his actions, his dialogue, is exactly what you expect from a kid. Sure there's a war going on with possible genocide on the horizon, but Lil' Phil doesn't see this for what it is—he processes it as a child would, concerned more about the ghosts in the basement than the threat of mass-extermination.
Most people who read this book probably notice more of the alternate history storyline. Lil' Phil's antics are likely a distraction. For me, I thought every redeeming quality of this book resided in the voice of this person, looking back on his childhood. Roth nails that childhood perspective in a way few authors can emulate. Perhaps you could even say this is a memoir, Roth looking back on his own childhood (with a dash of alternate history).
Unfortunately, toward the end, the book sort of derailed. It was as though Roth were writing an 800-page epic and suddenly, in the middle, decided to just be done with it. Until those last couple chapters, the pace was steady, then out of nowhere comes the long drawn out history lessons that crams everything else you needed to know about this period in history. Lil' Phil's voice is lost, replaced with the thing that I was dreading this novel would be.
Had Roth continued with that same pace, the same point of view for 800 or more pages, I would've gladly followed him. But it just sort of fell apart. The last thing any memoir needs (even if it's completely fictitious) is a newsreel summarizing history. Probably it pleased the historical buffs, but for me, it took the human element out, and that was what I wanted most from this novel.