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The Breast by Philip Roth

Brenna and I were perusing the famed list "1001 Books To Read Before You Die" by Peter Boxall, and Brenna asked me, "What in the world is The Breast?" Unfamiliar, we clicked on the title and discovered this gem.

Philip Roth was a well renowned author – who sadly passed away in May of this year -  a short-story writer and novelist who was known for his intensely autobiographical characters, the blurring of reality and fiction, and for his provocative explorations of American identity. He received countless awards, including the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction (x2), the National Book Critics Circle Award (x2), the PEN/Faulkner Award (x3), the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, the UK's WH Smith Literary Award, and (funnily enough) the inaugural Franz Kafka Prize. It's beyond question that his literary career was highly successful, leading his more recognized books such as American Pastoral and Sabbath's Theater to become part of the modern cannon. Hardly anyone, though, recognizes a work of his called The Breast...

The back cover sums up the plot stating, "Like a latter-day Gregor Samsa [main character of Kafka's The Metamorphosis], Professor David Kepesh wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed. But where Kafka's protagonist turned into a giant beetle, the narrator of Philip Roth's richly conceived fantasy has become a 155-pound female breast". We are not kidding. We are also not kidding when we say it is excellent.

Prof. David Kepesh is a selfish, self-pitying man who over time turns into a 155-lb breast. He slowly falls into a world of delusion and paranoia. The amusing part of this book is his self-awareness as this occurs and his attempts at rationalization. At another time this story would have been published in the depths of the internet under a pseudonym, not by a respected author, or it would join the list of shame reads that include Fifty Shades of Gray. At least, this story is better written.

In a New York Times review from September 17, 1972, John Gardner – author of Grendel -- writes:

Technically at least, "The Breast" seems to me Roth's best book so far. The humor and pathos (it has fair amounts of both) come from his solid grasp of how life is, his firm knowledge of the importance of strength of character and the will to live....The trick which is the heart of the book is brilliant: to celebrate the ordinary, the silly, the banal, create a grotesque and extraordinary banality--a huge detached breast with human consciousness and feeling. The trick is so good, so obvious and easy and yet so rich with meaning, it's a little hard to translate from what it is, a piece of art, to reviewer's language....Roth is no Gogol--a comparison he boldly and jokingly invites--but "The Breast" is terrific for a thing of its kind: inventive and sane and very funny, though filthy of course, as I've mentioned. It's incredible, in fact, how smart he is for a man so hung up with his you-know-what.

**co-written review with Brenna A.**

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