Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Letting Go, by Philip Roth: A First Novel That'd Never Be Published Today

Shout out to the four people (and four may be overstating it) who will care about this review of a 630-page novel first published in 1962! 😂

I've read more Philip Roth than any other writer. So it was about time to read Letting Go, his first full-length novel (published in 1962, after his first actual published work, Goodbye, Columbus, a story collection and novella, published in 1959). All I could think all the way through these 630 pages is that, while I was mostly enjoying it, it sure didn't feel like a Philip Roth novel. Here, Roth characters spend a lot of time actually talking to each other (mostly arguing), and they do very little individual introspection. Odd, for Roth.

This story is basically about two couples living in mid-century Chicago. Narrators and perspectives shift to reveal each characters' skeletons in the closet, and why their current relationships are fraught. But what makes this a memorable, fascinating story is that all four of these characters are absolutely neurotic and medium-terrible people. They are unforgettable, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all their problems with each other.

So if you think of this as a first novel, and not Philip Roth's first novel, it's an amazingly accomplished feat. It's a first novel that would NEVER get published today — or would at least be edited down to about 250 pages. Even though this novel deals with semi-dramatic issues, like disowned families, adoption, abortion, infidelity, and more, not a whole lot really happens. How Roth manages to keep you coming back for 630 pages is pretty amazing. So even though this is generally considered a minor Roth work, even though it's his debut novel, you still do get a sense of the talent that is about to unleash some of the best American literature to come over the next 50 years. And that's why I read it. It took almost a month, but I'm glad I did. 


  1. Good for you! I read it when it came out because Goodbye, Columbus was such a big damn deal in NY. I don't remember it being that long, but I was young & had lots of free time. I also didn't understand the grown-up bits, being a shy, high school girl, but I remember liking it a lot. Then I read them all, all my life, till the last three, which... I just couldn't. HE was gone. From a long-time fan of yours.

    1. Thanks for this! What a cool thing to be a lifelong Roth fan - I've only been one since the late 1990s and feel like such a Johnny Come Lately. :) And thanks for reading!

  2. I love Philip Roth, it’s a travesty he didn’t receive the Nobel prize, but my thoughts on this book are captured in a ps Mark Twain added in a letter to a friend: “I’m sorry this was such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
    What the hell?!? On and on and on and on goes every aspect of this book, every conversation, every thought, every endless analysis of every thought and every conversation, on and on and on and on. I just finished the book (13 hours spent reading according to Libby) and am drained, exhausted, wet-noodle limp, too tired to do anything other than that whisper thank god it’s over.
    And yet I’m glad I read it. If read is even the right word. Experienced, struggled through, suffered, persevered, triumphed.
    Many years ago, in preparing to do acid for the first time and having friends tell me what to expect (my experience was nothing like what they described), I came to the realization there is no such thing as “vicarious”; but I do think Roth’s prolonged rubbing my nose in these people’s endless misery helped me feel, to the point of screaming and cutting off a finger, the frustration and confusion and hopelessness of these human bugs in a jar.
    Holy shit, I’m glad it’s over.

  3. I loved "Letting Go", I first found the novel in a used bookstore two years ago and from the opening letter I was hooked. "Letting Go" was my introduction to Philip Roth and I was floored. It is true some sections go on too long but on the whole I really enjoyed the wonderful writing. There are still sections that I got back to and reread just for fun, the Libby Gabe car ride where Gabe learns Libby read his mother's letter, Martha and Gabe on the phone together, the push and pull of Gabe with his father. I loved all the characters, conversations, and descriptions. It was all very memorable and compelling to me.