I’m not one to gravitate towards novels spanning the lifetime of a character. A novel covering more than a ten-year span demands attention to detail that I, admittedly, am not equipped to handle. I am a standard model reader with a thirty-second attention span. If life gets in the way and I put the book down for a few days, I want to easily pick up where I left off and forge ahead without having to reread an entire chapter for my bearing. I am very simple that way. Why then would I tackle Ward Just’s American Romantic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a sprawling novel spanning over forty years? Maybe I was intrigued by the tale of an American Diplomat pushing his way through assignment after assignment from the 1960s to the present day. Perhaps it was to understand what a story of that nature had to do with the title. Ultimately, I was curious to see how a writer could span such a length of time in less than 300 pages, all the while keeping it interesting and keeping me from having to flip back through the book to connect dots in later chapters.
Harry Sanders is an American diplomat in the 1960s. He is young, smart, and willing to tackle assignments beyond his experience, to take a job the government will disavow should it come to light. He is both solid as a rock and in over his head, a perfect combination for the reader to champion, but American Romantic is not a twisting thriller. As the title indicates, it is a love story, bracketed by life as a diplomat making high level decisions, their outcomes and regrets based on those decisions. As with anyone looking to move ahead in their respective field, Harry takes what his superiors give, buoyed by their confidence and his own intelligence. But, just as with matters of the heart, a step in the wrong direction leads him wishing forever that he could change his past. Barefoot down a jungle path, starving and dehydrated, Harry encounters a deadly situation forcing him to a life-haunting decision.
The greatest part of American Romantic is how Just draws a subliminal parallel between Sanders’ diplomatic world and his heart. Harry is smart enough to navigate conversations with presidents, ambassadors and the love of his life, but during moments when decisions are less a chess match and more spur of the moment, he finds those decisions become wounds, heartbreaking in retrospect and surfacing often.
I was fascinated how quickly American Romantic grabbed me and kept my attention through the decades and settings, from Indochina to Africa to the Balkans. Before I knew it, the story drew to its close and, knowing I was writing a review of the book, I was left to reflect how Just kept me turning the pages. As I look back, I realize how perfect the book’s title and—I reveal this next part with embarrassment for not familiarizing myself with enough of the author’s previous work—how masterful a writer Ward Just is.
As time passes in our lives, we have the tendency to romanticize our past or sections of our past. The moments we collect and hold to develop our own history becomes the story of who we are. We subtract parts and embellish others. We form our own narrative. American Romantic highlights those same moments in the life of Harry Sanders. Just does away with the mundane and shines light on moments so important to Harry that we see a full life in only a couple hundred pages, though we’ve traveled over forty years. The romantic chapters of Harry’s career are lockstep with the thoughts of his one true love and without giving away too much, these moments echo thoughts of our own pasts and our own ideas of romance on every level which left me wondering if Harry Sanders is the American Romantic the title refers to or if it’s the reader.
American Romantic by Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt