An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
by Daniel Mendelsohn
“What catches you off-guard about this memoir is how moving it is,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. The setup sounds like light comedy: Critic and classics scholar Daniel Mendelsohn teaches a seminar on The Odyssey to teenage undergraduates, and one winter his vinegary 81-yearold father asks if he can sit in. If you know Mendelsohn, you also expect he’ll know his Homer. But he exceeds expectations. Combining classroom comedy, biographical memoir, literary criticism, and even a related account of being trapped on a theme cruise, he’s written a book as warmly layered as a Rodgers and Hart song. And though it’s often amusing, “it has many complicated things to say not only about Homer’s epic poem but about fathers and sons.”
The book’s most entertaining passages are the classroom scenes, said Jonathan Russell Clark in the San Francisco Chronicle. Jay Mendelsohn, a supremely intelligent retired scientist, initially agrees to be a silent observer. But he breaks his promise on Day One, immediately objecting to his son’s characterization of Odysseus as a hero, which sends the class’s younger students into fits of laughter. Jay takes the study of Homer’s epic poem seriously, though, and soon Odysseus’ winding path toward a reunion with his son begins to parallel the growing understanding between the two Mendelsohns.
Like The Odyssey, Mendelsohn’s book can be leading to only one ending, said John Freeman in The Boston Globe. Less than a year after taking his son’s course, Jay Mendelsohn dies. By then, Daniel has gained a fuller appreciation of his father— his humble Depression-era childhood, his autodidactic mastery of mathematics, his devotion to rigorous study—and those discoveries have deepened his understanding of Homer’s text. The elder Mendelsohn emerges as having been a hero in disguise, a mentor ready even in death to counsel any son willing to go in search of him. An Odyssey “shows us how necessary this education is, how provisional, how frightening, how comforting.”