Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel may be a roman à clef in which the Gursky family represents the Bronfman family, a Canadian dynasty that owns the Seagrams corporation. The Bronfman’s disputed early history and later triumph provides one way to read the novel.

The novel is also of interest in its manipulation of narrative time. It begins in the middle of the nineteenth century and moves back and forth in time to give a full portrait of the Gursky family. This unusual narrative structure is used to reveal the checkered history of the family’s founder, Ephraim, and to create a mythic presence in the characterization of Solomon. He is never seen in a linear narrative, but his presence cuts through a large period of history.

The novel also shows a development in the fiction of Mordecai Richler. It does have the Jewish characters of Montreal of the earlier novels as well as the humor. However, this novel has a scope and historical sweep that is new in Richler’s oeuvre. The family saga that spreads over a century and a half contrasts to the concentration of the other novels.

Finally, the family conflicts of the novel will be of interest to many young readers, who may be drawn to the father-son conflicts that seem to define nearly all of this family’s history. The book presents some very oppressive fathers and some blighted sons. However, the novel does seem to point to a displacement of these fathers as a younger generation comes to power.