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In the novel's first section, "Paradise Remembered," we first look at Seymour Irving Levov (the Swede), a high school sports hero to the predominantly Jewish Weequahic neighborhood in Newark New Jersey, during the years leading up to the end of World War II.
The as yet unnamed narrator remembers idolizing the Swede as a child, and hanging out with the Swede's younger brother, Jerry. The Swede's father Lou Levov runs a successful glove making business, and the family is wealthy. After high school the Swede joins the Marines, just as World War II is coming to a close. While in the marines he gets engaged to a non-Jewish girl, and his father breaks up the marriage. Later on the Swede marries Miss New Jersey, 1949, Dawn Dwyer.
In 1985 the narrator, who we learn is the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, runs into the Swede. Ten years later he gets a letter from the Swede (who is about seventy) inviting him to dinner. He goes to the dinner, but feels he's never been able to penetrate beneath the Swede's still perfect surface. The Swede shows him lots of pictures of his three teenage sons and fairly young second wife, who is the boys' mother.
A few months later, at Zuckerman's forty-fifth high school reunion he meets Jerry and learns that the Swede died a few days earlier. He also learns that the Swede had a daughter who bombed a post office in the small town of Rimrock, New Jersey. She too has died. From the few clues Zuckerman has, he sets out to imagine what the Swede's life might have been like with his daughter, before and after the bombing. He turns his imaginings into a novel.
The first thing he imagines is an uncomfortable scene where the Swede kisses his daughter, Merry, when she is eleven. He then conjures up a series of conversations between the Swede and Merry, concerning her growing interest in taking action against the Vietnam War. The section ends with a recap of the post-office bombing.
In the novel's second section, "The Fall," Zuckerman seems to drop out of the story (as we discuss in "Narrator Point of View"). The remainder of the novel seems to be told in the third person, from the Swede's perspective (though we can't help but keep Zuckerman in our minds). The section begins four months after the bombing. A young woman named Rita Cohen comes to see the Swede at Newark Maid. After pretending to be a student researching the leather industry, she tells the Swede she's come on Merry's behalf. In the hopes of finding his daughter, the Swede gives Rita some of Merry's most personal items.
The Swede gives Rita ten thousand dollars for Merry, but doesn't get to see her. Rita seems to have disappeared too. The Swede spends the next five years desperately waiting for another word about his daughter and trying to figure out what happened to make things turn out so ugly. During those five years he watches the news constantly looking for signs that Merry is still alive. At the end of the five years, just after his wife Dawn has started to recover from the trauma of Merry's disappearance and is enjoying her new face lift, he gets a letter from Rita Cohen telling him where Merry is.
He finds Merry and learns that she really was the bomber, that she has killed three more people, that she has been raped twice, and that she considers herself a Jain and has taken a vow of non-violence. The Swede also learns that Merry's speech therapist hid her for the first few days after the bombing. The section ends with a brutal conversation between the Swede and his brother Jerry, where Jerry blames the Swede for what's become of Merry.
The novel's final section ("Paradise Lost") begins with the Swede imagining his earlier life with Merry and Dawn in Rimrock. The Swede returns home after his visit with Merry, and the rest of the novel centers around a dinner party happening at the Swede's house that night. First he visits with his parents, in from Florida. They discuss Merry with some anxiety.
Bill and Jessie Orcutt are the first to arrive, and we learn some of Orcutt's family history. Barry and Marcia Umanoff and Shelly and Sheila Salzman are also in attendance. The conversation turns to Watergate, and then to the film Deep Throat, reminding us that we are in the 1970s. When the Swede goes to the kitchen to find Orcutt and tell him his wife Jessie is having problems, he sees Dawn and Bill Orcutt having sex in the kitchen.
Soon after, the Swede gets a call from Rita Cohen, accusing him of trying to take Merry away from her. We learns about the Swede's brief affair with Sheila, Merry's speech therapist, and see the Swede confront her about hiding Merry in her apartment just after the Rimrock bombing—a fact he's just learned from Merry.
Throughout the section, the Swede tries to decide whether to go back and get Merry out of the awful room, to run away with Sheila, or to run away with Merry. The novel ends with the Swede's father getting "stabbed" (9.352) in the face with a fork when he's trying to force a very drunk Jessie Orcutt to eat pie. The fork barely misses Lou's eye. We aren't given details of the extent of his physical injuries, though it's implied they are minor. We certainly hope so, since Marcia Umanoff is laughing at him. The novel's last lines are as follows:
They'll never recover. Everyone is against [the Levovs], everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life!
And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs? (9. 355, 356)
(Head over to "What's Up With the Ending" for some discussion of the final moment.)