Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Letting Go, Roth’s first novel, was one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the last several decades. Roth had demonstrated such brilliance at such a young age with his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five short stories and the title novella, that it was believed that there was almost no limit to what he could achieve. That first book received the National Book Award, but when this vast, six-hundred-page novel appeared, the critical reaction was mixed. Many readers were disappointed by its diffuseness and by the long, dull stretches that separate the brilliant passages. Line by line, the writing was admired, but it was thought that much of the narrative simply was superfluous; the novel’s parts were considered more successful than the whole. Yet, as one reviewer noted, it was one of the more ambitious novels published in 1962, and certainly one of the most memorable. In this first novel, Roth was trying to achieve very specific literary goals. The book is structured around a mixture of irony and affirmation such as is found in the books of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Bernard Malamud. Roth may not have been entirely successful in sustaining that mixture, but the effort pointed his work in a profitable direction. This novel is much looser and freer in construction than are the stories in Goodbye, Columbus; the writing of it was a liberating experience for Roth. From this, he went on to write When She Was...

(The entire section is 429 words.)