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The Scientists: A Family Romance Hardcover – September 18, 2012

3.6 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Marco Roth emerged from his privileged New York City childhood like one of Salinger's precocious Glass children, but Roth's family was ravaged by secrets, and from this history he has written a gorgeous memoir no one will be able to put down: psychologically adroit, precise, moving--one of the best memoirs I've read in years.” ―Mary Karr, author of Lit

“This is the first intellectual autobiography by someone our age in the searching nineteenth-century tradition of Edmund Gosse or Henry Adams: the autobiography equally of a reader and of a son, grappling with an inheritance that is both intellectual and emotional--an education for our times.” ―Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review

“Marco Roth's memoir is a farewell to a bygone Jewish American culture--polyglot, intellectual, Europhile, psychoanalytic--and simultaneously a renewal of that culture. It's both moving and tough-minded, a book of high intellect and deep feeling the like of which nobody else could write.” ―Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision

The Scientists manages to recuperate for our time a certain kind of personal, idiosyncratic, private writing that moves at the speed of an actual very high intelligence. No one in our generation has written anything like this.” ―Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men

“A book that has stayed with me this year is Marco Roth's quiet, reflective, and deeply candid memoir The Scientists: A Family Romance. It is the story of a childhood spent keeping a terrible secret--the fact that Roth's father, a scientist, was dying of AIDS--and the ways that secret shaped Roth's passage into adulthood. Roth also has valuable things to say about what draws people to literature and literary theory, and how the attempt to understand life through books can both enlighten and mislead.” ―Adam Kirsch, The New Republic

“The author's prose [is] effortlessly erudite and often startlingly precise. He writes beautifully. That care, which breathes through every paragraph, is freighted too with a kind of desperation. This is a book that Roth feels born, or doomed, to write . . . Roth quickly and likably departs from any such rational scheme in favour of the more chaotic and obsessive, hopelessly self-absorbed stuff of his life. You guess that few authors have been more relieved to get to the final page of a book than this one; for my part, as a reader, I was just sad it had ended.” ―Tim Adams, The Observer

“This slim, fierce meditation takes readers into realms where more emotional, confessional tales rarely tread. Roth is an intellectual. (How could he be otherwise with that upbringing?) The Scientists not only precisely evokes the lost postwar world of high European culture that once thrived on New York's Upper West Side, but also traces Roth's subsequent struggles to understand how his upbringing--with its intense emphasis on the life of the mind--both liberated and, as he puts it, "thwarted" him . . . Ultimately, Roth's quest brings him back to a posthumous confrontation with the father who first deceived him, to ask the question of whether it's ever possible to escape a family legacy of unhappiness, "reticence" and "pretense." This memoir itself, a prolonged and unsentimental backward glance, serves as its own disturbing answer to that question.” ―Maureen Corrigan, NPR

The Scientists is . . . not simply a perceptive and highly literary memoir but a book about attempting to uncover the mystery of a father's life after his death, and the posthumous intimacy that forms.” ―Alexander Aciman, The Wall Street Journal

“Circuitous, elegant and fiercely intelligent, this memoir is Mr. Roth's attempt to understand his father's character in order to better know his own . . . With the wisdom of a good reader and the humility of a lost soul, Mr. Roth sorts through the mess of his past--in order to plot his escape from it.” ―The Economist

“[A] beautifully sharp memoir . . . Marco Roth turns his analytical eye on the culturally rich milieu of his upbringing and the mode of education he received within the walls of his home . . . The Scientists is composed with the same analytical eye for influence that the critic has brought to the table as an editor and writer for n+1. A less diligent memoirist might have easily restricted this meditation on retrospective reading to more defensive, sentimental territory, and Roth's acknowledgment of the uncertainty of his purpose is commendable both for its bravery and its awareness . . . The Scientists is still, at its most fundamental, a family romance: elegiac, rife with frustrations of desire and secrecy . . . Roth's prose, which has been well tuned by years of academic writing and meticulous study of literary classics, is luminous and graceful. His gift for building plot from domestic drama is similarly patent; his story is gripping, and The Scientists: A Family Romance is a burning work, alive with all the romantic potentials one would expect of a canonical classic--or, better yet, of a family life lived deeply, richly, and painfully.” ―Ryan Sheldon, Blomblog

“This book is suffused with real pain . . . The best things in The Scientists are Mr. Roth's spiny meditations on sex and ambition and family and love and death. The sound this book makes is the sound of a keen mind on shuffle. He strongly evokes a generational sense of malaise . . . [The Scientists] lingers in the cranium.” ―Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[An] affecting memoir . . . The book is, among other things, a cautionary tale of a hypertrophied intellectualism that overreacts to any faint threat of sentimentality or child's logic, and threatens to choke off and kill any spontaneous show of pleasure, passion or affection . . . The Scientists is an act of love--a circumspect, often bitter, always studious love--and thus an act of both filial piety and defiance.” ―Jessica Winter, The New York Times Book Review

“Roth's prose evokes a calm, contemplative feel, with occasional flights of poetic fancy . . . The Scientists is at its strongest as Roth tries to unravel the mystery of his father. That relationship, fraught as it is, brings forth Roth's humanist side, as he tries not only to understand his father, but also to redeem him . . . The Scientists evinces a compelling portrait of the intellectual as a young man.” ―Viet Dinh, Lambda Literary

“Marco Roth's affecting memoir The Scientists . . . evokes that world of intellectuals, Oriental rugs and a postwar highbrow aesthetic of Schubert, Turgenev and Mann. This is less of a confessional memoir than a fiercely intellectual one, but that's not to say it's not emotionally powerful . . . This unsentimental memoir is a cautionary tale about hyper-intellectualism in which emotional life is at the back of the bus.” ―Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune (Editor's Choice)

“Roth brings a wistful dryness to his work; he is relaxed in the peculiar details of a story that limns much of what is universal between fathers and sons . . . Here a strange, perfectionist family becomes worth pondering. The Scientists produced a son worth knowing.” ―Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“To the extent that lucid, self-lacerating prose can break a cycle of frustrations, The Scientists is a literary triumph.” ―Steven G. Kellman, Forward

“Profound, intricate, literary, a little gossipy and more than a little heartbreaking--such is Marco Roth's echt New York memoir, The Scientists . . . Far from confessional, Roth's exploration is tough-minded, beautifully written, sometimes wry and self-mocking and always faithful to the complexities of his own feeling an thinking, his own failures and frailties.” ―Elizabeth Benedict, Huffington Post

“What makes The Scientists singularly brave is not the nature of its disclosures but the fact that Roth, a great writer, risked appearing mercenary or opportunistic in order to write it. He staked his relatively young reputation on the belief that he could convey absolute honesty and resist the impulse to curry sympathy or self-mythologize. At times Roth comes off poorly--overly sensitive, or too eager to think where he might feel--but it is a measure of his honesty that he never seems oblivious to his faults. In revisiting experiences more painful than many of his readers will ever have to endure, he is incapable of weakness or insincerity . . . One marvels at Roth's inner life, which he has rendered so richly. If one begins this book asking, ‘Just who does he think he is?' that reader will certainly finish it thinking, ‘Glad I asked.'” ―Stefan Beck, Barnes and Noble Review

The Scientists is . . . a book worth reading . . . The memoir is at once about the process of maturation, and an example of how to write . . . intelligent and emotionally moving. More importantly, The Scientists is a brave and honest examination of shifting cultural values, liberal hypocrisy, and privileged guilt. Above all else, it is an exploration of the best way to live one's life--which is, after all, the very point of literature.” ―The Coffin Factory

“A lyrical depiction of education, family relationships, self-knowledge, and ‘a culture that believes no one should suffer, least of all in public.'” ―The New Yorker

“[The Scientists] is an exquisitely written and intensely interior book, one that eschews the contemporary memoir's penchant for epiphanies, redemption and tidy resolutions . . . Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this memoir is how free it is of self-importance . . . Although sincerity and authenticity were surely virtues regarded with skepticism in the graduate schools where Roth whiled away his 20s, they are also qualities The Scientists possesses in spades. It refuses even to lord Roth's present-day understanding over his clueless past self -- that is, to indulge in the egotism of autobiographical irony. ‘I was lost then, and I'm probably still lost,' he seems to be saying, ‘but this is the story of how I fumbled, and am fumbling, a bit closer to the truth.' . . . The Scientists closes with a scene of him still at sea, starting all over again, beginning to write what you suddenly realize is the book you're holding in your hands. He hasn't quite arrived, but it's good know that at last he can see the shore.” ―Laura Miller, Salon

“The Scientists is highly intelligent, but to call a debut so concerned with uncertainty "assured" would misrepresent its complexity. The episodic structure creates a sense of dislocation so that the ending, when Roth makes discoveries and recovers those aspects of himself he needs to live and write free from the shame that consumed his father, provides hard-earned catharsis.” ―Max Liu, The Independent (UK)

“[The Scientists] is a moving exercise in literary detective work.” ―Aaron Hicklin, Out Magazine

“Nothing seems embellished in The Scientists. Roth wasn't looking to tell a coming-of-age story or write a book that feeds into his idea that the modern reader views literature as ‘spectacle'--as he wrote in a 2006 issue of n+1. Roth's concern with The Scientists is to tell his story, the story of a dark period in his life and the way he coped with it. He isn't trying to feed juicy pieces of gossip to sell the book, rather he takes the brave step of telling his story the only way he seems able to, and it has paid off in dividends by the time you finally close it.” ―Jason Diamond, Vol. 1 Brooklyn

The Scientists: A Family Romance is a profound memoir.” ―Charles R. Larson, Counterpunch

“[Roth is] self-aware, perceptive and soulful . . . [The Scientists] feels wisely grounded. It's an elegy not just for a lost parent but for what Roth's bio calls ‘the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan's Upper West Side.'” ―Dylan Hicks, The Minneapolis Star Tribune

About the Author

Marco Roth was raised amid the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan's Upper West Side. After studying comparative literature at Columbia and Yale, he helped found the magazine n+1, in 2004. Recipient of the 2011 Shattuck prize for literary criticism, he lives in Philadelphia. The Scientists is his first book.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st Us Edition edition (September 18, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780374210281
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374210281
  • ASIN: 0374210284
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,587,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an extremely powerful, haunting first work. It steers clear of the many temptations and false consolations of the memoir: to make linear and precise what in memory is always twisted and vague; to take one's own reconstructed account for the truth; and to slip into that false religion which holds that to articulate one's own life, say "one's own truth," somehow redeems that life. Though written by a literary critic with an extremely literary sensibility, The Scientists is highly scientific in method: Every conclusion is tentative and subject to revision, and it never allows a hypothesis to pass without challenging it with inconvenient facts. We close the book with no single working theory that accounts for why Marco Roth is who he is, why his father was who he was, and why his mother stood by. Instead, we come to share Roth's many struggles, over many years, to come to answer these questions, to puzzle out, in the shadow of his father's ghost, his own failings and fortunes. For a man as sensitive and introspective as Roth, these struggles to read one's own life again and again *are* life.

Yes, Roth grew up in a rarefied corner of New York City Jewish society, affluent and well educated. More than that, he was a particularly effete flower of that world -- raised speaking French, playing violin and reading Shakespeare before he read comic books -- and, as he tells us, he often suffered socially as a result. But there is nothing precious or pretentious about his writing here, or about the person who comes through. He is tough-minded and forthright -- which is the very best you can ask of a memoirist.

This is a must-read. You won't forget it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Marco Roth has written a memoir of his life as a son of parents living their own lives in a sort of denial of the truth. The "truth" was his father's death from AIDS in the mid-1990's and the lies and half-truths handed down through the generations of Eugene Roth's family.

Eugene Roth was the brother of writer Anne Roth Roiphe and the uncle of writer Katie Roiphe. Their parents raised their children in a household of denial. Their father was a philanderer with a second family, financed by the wealth of their mother. Anne Roiphe writes about her life in the book, "1185 Park Avenue". She also hints at her brother, Eugene's, sexuality in the memoir, published soon after Eugene Roth's death. Marco, the son who watched his father die in their apartment and had been forbidden to tell others of his father's illness, was left with more half-truths. His father had told Marco that he had contracted AIDS due to an inadvertent slip in his medical practice. Viki Roth, Marco's mother kept up this explanation after Eugene's death. It took Anne Roiphe's memoir to begin Marco's questioning of his parents' lives.

What is the purpose of writing a memoir. Telling the truth? Getting back at those who have caused the author pain? Righting a wrong (perceived or real)? I think people write memoirs for almost as many reasons are there are memoirs. Marco Roth's memoir examines the secrecy that transcended the generations of his family. He writes how the family dynamics affected his life, way past his father's death. He uses his memoir as a way to figure out his life. I suppose that's a good reason to write a memoir. Roth's memoir is worth reading, particularly if the reader knows about the Roth/Roiphe connection.
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I bought this book after reading the positive review it received in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. My opinion differs from that reviewer: I found "The Scientists" to be one of the most disappointing books I've read this year.

Overall, I found the book tedious and without any narrative arc. In fact, I remember somewhere in the book that two characters argue about the role of narrative in life and literature. One person says that life isn't a story and that "things happen" for no reason and that these events aren't all interconnected. Well, I think Marco Roth proved that point: it seems they don't have to be connected in literature either. Instead, he offers up disjointed tales and trips. More than anything, the latter stages of the book felt like some series of extended book reports (Marco starts reading his father's books to understand him). It became a book about books and not so much a book about life, and it definitely wasn't much of a memoir.

That said, for all my negative critiques, I want to note that Marco Roth can write a beautiful sentence and construct some beautiful paragraphs. My complaint is that they often don't go anywhere.
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By Bingo on February 4, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I bought this because of the positive review it got in The Economist, but having read the book I think the magazine paid it far more praise than it deserved.
While there were passages that were well done, on the whole I found the book amateurishly written and executed, and the tone whiny and self-indulgent. I believe this book made it to publication only because of the author's family connection to the writers Anne Roiphe and Katie Roiphe (his aunt and cousin, respectively). The editors responsible for this book should be sacked. There are so many more deserving writers out there with more interesting material.
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