Book Review – The Godfather by Mario Puzo, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die #169

godfather - book cover Unlike when I started reading The Shining, I have seen the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather—in fact, it was part of an assignment back in my high school psychology class (I no longer remember or care what we had to do for the assignment but it remains one of my favorites). Though it’s been a few years since I saw the movie, they did a fantastic job of remaining true to the book and the characters—The Godfather is one of those instances of book to screen adaptations where both are genuine masterpieces. Even if I hadn’t already seen the quintessential mafia movie, Puzo’s prose provides a crystal clear picture for every scene.

On his daughter’s wedding day, Don Vito Corleone has meetings with several men who seek favors. His youngest son, Michael, attends the wedding with his WASP girlfriend, Kay Adams, trying to make light to her what the family business is and why so many people revere and fear Don Corleone. Michael insists to her—and anyone who knows him is already aware—that he has not part in the family business and has no intention of ever getting involved in it. But a short time later, Don Corleone’s polite refusal of a business deal is taken the wrong way and he is attacked, putting the fate of the Corleone family at risk and Michael realizes staying out of things is easier said than done.

The film is undeniably quotable and as a fan of it, I was thrilled to see how much of the dialogue came straight from the page (but then, Puzo helped write the screenplay). The prose and narrative approach are incredibly readable and engaging but structurally, it is how they approach the central figures of the Corleone family that I find benefits the story most. Though Vito and Michael Corleone are very much the two pillars that support the novel, the first glimpses we get are through the perspectives of the men who have come to beg favors on the day of Connie’s wedding. The attitudes of each man as the nature of their needs is laid out and their trepidation about approaching Don Corleone—knowing that he has the power to help them but not knowing for sure whether or not he will—build up the aura of the character. The reader’s first introduction to Michael isn’t quite so indirect or austere in nature but does just as effective a job of establishing his personality—he is uncomfortable and very much an outsider, even as he is sitting among family, friends, and life-long acquaintances.

The Godfather is an interesting novel to read when it comes to the politics of the sexes. Mario Puzo manages to include quite the number of viewpoints on masculinity, femininity, and society’s relationship to sex. There is a very clear rule in the organized crime families that women and young children—and any relatives not directly involved in the “business” operations of a given family—are off limits when it comes to attacks. The lines of gender roles are clearly drawn. But there are also characters—like the physician, Jules Segal, who speak frankly about abortions (which were illegal during the time the novel is set) and the prudish way society deals with sex; and I’m still not completely sure what to make of Johnny Fontane’s elaborate views on women and how he treats them. I may have to go through some literary criticism databases to see what’s been written on these subjects.

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