Nemesis: Book summary and reviews of Nemesis by Philip Roth

Nemesis

By Philip Roth

Nemesis
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2010,
    304 pages.

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Book Summary

In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth's wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children.

At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground - and on the everyday realities he faces - Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain.

Moving between the smoldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos - whose "mountain air was purified of all contaminants" - Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, and no less exact about the condition of childhood.

Through this story runs the dark questions that haunt all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis: What kind of accidental choices fatally shape a life? How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance?

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Bucky's too simple a character to drive the novel, and the traits that make him a good playground director - not very bright, quite polite, beloved, straight thinking - make him a lackluster protagonist. For Roth, it's surprisingly timid." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. Roth, one of our greatest American writers, is unrivaled in his mastery at evoking mid-20th-century New Jersey, but it's the thoughtful examination of the toll guilt takes on the psyche, the futility of raging against God or Fate, and the danger of turning blame inward that give this short novel its power." - Library Journal

"What happens is heartbreaking, but the joy of having met Bucky redeems any residual sadness." - Booklist

"Starred Review... For it is within these short novels that Roth tackles nothing less than the human condition, which finds its nemesis in the mirror." - Kirkus

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Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Diane Scholl
Nemisis
I love Philip Roth and this book is one of my favorites. It was a time when children played outside, read books, played softball games in the schoolyard, and girls jumped rope to silly rhymes. Neighbors sat outside and gossiped after dinner because there was no air conditioning and this was the way they caught a breeze and stayed abreast of the happenings in their neighborhoods. Yet that summer, the war almost over, another war is being waged at home: An insidious killer comes calling taking seemingly healthy children one day and turning them into corpses virtually overnight. No one knows what causes it, where it come from or how to stop it and yet polio will change Bucky's life in way he never imagined. The threat of polio also changes the neighborhood, making people suspicious of the very things they once held dear. Virtually flawless depiction of an era that was both sentimental and yet heartbreaking. Highly recommend this book.

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Author Information

Philip Roth Author Biography

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933. He attended Rutgers University before receiving his B.A. at Bucknell and his M.A. from the University of Chicago. He served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1956. He has taught English at a number of universities including the University of Pennsylvania where he was writer-in-residence for fifteen years. Philip Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, was published in 1959 and won the National Book Award for fiction. Patrimony (1991) was the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Operation Shylock (1993) of the PEN/Faulkner Award, Sabbath's Theater (1995) of the National Book Award. Philip Roth lives in Connecticut; American Pastoral was his twentieth book. In 2005, he became the third living ...

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