Amazon: Average 4.7. Mode: 5 stars.
Goodreads: Average 4.21. Mode: 5 stars.
The story of Don Vito Corleone, the head of a New York Mafia family, inspired some of the most successful movies ever. It is in Mario Puzo's The Godfather that Corleone first appears. As Corleone's desperate struggle to control the Mafia underworld unfolds, so does the story of his family. The novel is full of exquisitely detailed characters who, despite leading unconventional lifestyles within a notorious crime family, experience the triumphs and failures of the human condition. Filled with the requisite valor, love, and rancor of a great epic, The Godfather is the definitive gangster novel.
I was really not expecting to enjoy this book so much. It's a page-turner that boils with intrigue, sex, and violence. Mario Puzo was a hack who found a highly successful formula for mass market success, and followed it.
Is The Godfather well written? In literary terms, no. There's a lot of infodumping. It's written in third person omniscient. The characters are flat; we learn about their personalities and histories because Puzo narrates this information at us. The dialog is trite, with the omniscient narrator telling us the extra layers of meaning behind everything. Puzo constantly tells instead of shows. This is a beach read, a guilty pleasure. Very guilty, very pleasurable, like one of those books you know you should think is horrible but you want to recommend to everyone.
Where Puzo excels is in the details and the plotting. The Corleones' war against the Five Families is a brilliant back and forth of tactical and strategic maneuvering, with every character shining in whatever little part he has to play. This is where the book beats the movie. Francis Ford Coppola's film is very faithful to the book -- it's almost a scene-by-scene reproduction. But the movie necessarily chopped a lot of material. As in most strict adaptations of a big novel, a line or two of dialog in the movie substitutes for what is an entire section in the book. The book gives a much fuller explanation of everyone's motives and plans, and the setup leading to every event. Every single character, even the bit parts like the fake cop who shoots Barzini, get complete histories.
If you don't consider extra material like that a bonus, then you may prefer the film, since Coppola does quite a marvelous job of stripping away everything not essential to the plot. But I liked knowing all the extra details and the ins and outs of the Corleone empire. There are several subplots in the book that don't appear at all in the film. Movie star Johnny Fontane has several chapters of his own. They don't really relate directly to the main story -- more evidence that Puzo was a hack who padded his book with stuff a sharp editor would probably cut nowadays -- but still, if you enjoy the story, you will probably enjoy the side trips.
One thing you may not enjoy is the misogyny. Given that this is a book about the Mafia in the 1940s (and it was written in 1969), one wouldn't exactly expect a lot of "strong female characters," but to put it bluntly, women in this book are possessions, period. The "nicer" wiseguys treat their possessions with more care. No female character has any role other than penis receptacle and/or babymaker. Kay Adams, Michael Corleone's girlfriend/wife, does get a fuller treatment in the book than she did in the movie, and she isn't quite such a clueless dingbat, and Don Corleone's wife actually gets a little bit of dialog as well, but both of them are still just well-treated possessions.
Despite its flaws, I just have to say that I loved this book. I would never defend its literary merits, and I'd rather go watch Godfather II and III than read another Puzo novel (the reviews of his other books suggest that he didn't really get any better), but The Godfather is a surprisingly good read. If you like gangster novels or crime thrillers, you gotta read this. If you liked the movie, you gotta read the book. If you've never seen the movie, read the book first, then enjoy the movie.
Verdict: This is a classic for a reason. That reason is not the great writing. In fact, it's barely a step above pulp fiction. But it's fun, it's well plotted, it's entertaining as hell, it's got great characters, and the Godfather invites you to read it.