The Short Version: The story of the Lambert Family – a typical American family of the nuclear age – at the turn of the 21st Century. There’s Alfred, patriarch, who suffers from dementia and Parkinson’s; Enid, his wife, who is… well, exactly what you’d expect from an old midwestern housewife; and their three kids, all with their own issues and crises. As Alfred’s health declines, Enid makes a desperate plea to bring the family together one last time for one last Christmas – but when are families ever that simple?
The Review: Now this is more like it. This… This is the family novel at its very best. Any qualms I had about Franzen from that other book are gone because this book is everything that Freedom was supposed to be. This book is as amazing as everyone has said. I had a conversation about this book with the co-founder of my book club (a most singular individual) last night after a show and she said something about how this book really reached something deep inside of her because the story had such close parallels to the story of her own extended family. This stayed with me and stopped me in my tracks as I was reading tonight because I suddenly realized a way in which the story fit my family – a different way, but an equally plausible one. And that’s the magic of the novel, naturally: everyone can find something to relate to here.
On the one hand, there are the siblings. Three more realistic siblings you would be hard-pressed to come up with in modern literature. Maybe you prefer your siblings more Tenenbaum-esque, but painting the picture of three siblings is difficult. Two is easier – I can understand two, I have a sister and thus we are two. Three is a strange combination to me (and going 4+ gets even stranger). Yet my mother had two older brothers – and it is that relationship dynamic that suddenly struck me as I was reading. Greg and Ron and my mother, while certainly not a perfect match, provide a working real-life basis for my imagination to leap off from when looking at Gary and Chip and Denise. Put another way, Franzen’s picture of a sibling trio had enough similarities to something I know very intimately – and have grown up knowing, their dynamic is engrained in my mind – that I found it completely authentic. And that was the big problem I had with the other book: a lack of authenticity.
It’s strange to be reviewing this book with Freedom in mind but I feel as though the two books have (for better or worse) become inextricably linked, at least for the present. The Corrections is so much more fully realized, so much more heartfelt, that I feel it’s a disservice to continue comparing it to Freedom so I’m going to try not to… but I make no promises.
So where were we? Ah yes. So the plot is as simple as they come, really: the family falls apart and this is the story of how they (slowly) find their respective ways again. The narrative voice switches rather clearly (except once) from person to person, following their stories in a way that roughly gets you caught up to same point in everyone’s timelines by the end of any given section. This isn’t always true – Alfred has his accident at the end of one chapter and we spend a surprising amount of time getting to that point in the other timelines… and Chip sort of falls off the map after the first third of the book, although this would seem to be somewhat the point, I think. His story, actually, is the most far-fetched and yet the most believable. For some reason it was Chip who drew me into the book with his slightly outlandish life – the first 100 pages or so are this drug-rush of a novel, like something McInerney might write if he didn’t use drugs. It’s fun, it’s a little crazy, and it’s so incredibly on-point as to how these circumstances would play out in the real world. And then Chip heads off to Lithuania (weird, I agree) and we don’t really hear from him again for quite a long time. Surprisingly long time, now that I reflect on it. And this has a somewhat jarring effect: the rest of his family is not as wild as he is, despite that their stories take similarly wild turns. I mean, Denise’s sexuality alone (and the creation of a new restaurant like that in Philly – I’m sorry, Franzen, but I’m from Philly and let me tell you… that shit wouldn’t happen. Nice try though – I wish it would, because then maybe I’d actually like that city) is a bit outrageous and Gary’s descent into depression is equally a little over-the-top… but then, as you read them, you realize that these are modern-day lives of quiet desperation. This is how it goes, as it were. It is Chip – the New Yorker – whose life is actually outlandish. I’m not sure what it says about me – about my life here in New York, too – that I found Chip’s story so immediately engaging and that it took me a little longer to warm up to everyone else.
As the novel progresses, though, I did warm up to everyone else and I really loved all five of these characters. It’s an interesting plot and one that is rarely handled with such honesty: how children deal with their parents after a ‘certain age’ has been reached. I’m scared about my parents reaching ‘that age’ – my sister and I have conversations about it sometimes, about how we’ll handle it. Sure, it is undoubtedly still many years off – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cross my mind now and then. I watched my mom and her brothers handle my grandmother as she got older and frailer and I watched her rail against the weakening of her body. Alfred’s decline reminded me of that, actually. It makes you wonder – and Franzen did a remarkable job here of capturing that wonder – at how our bodies fail us. Our minds go. These things we take for granted about our humanity fail us and we do not go gentle into that good night but rather we do rage against the dying of the light – because we refuse to believe that we can be so weakened by our own form. It’s fascinating to see it and it happens on the page in this novel: Alfred fights because he doesn’t want to believe that his body and his mind are not the pinnacle they once were.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Maybe it’s Thanksgiving coming up and that familial feeling wrapping itself around my heart like a scarf – but I’m disposed to overlook some of the soft spots in this novel. Some of the plot pieces are a little too outlandish (seriously, the whole Lithuania thing is, as I think about it more, requiring just a bit too much suspension-of-disbelief) and there are times where Franzen’s voice gets the better of him and he draws things out (a trait that will come back to haunt him… and us, his readers…) – but I did not mind. In fact, those flaws seemed to only highlight how really quite wonderful the rest of the novel is. How smart, how truthful, how funny, how sad. Is it “the best American novel of the 21st Century so far”? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Our times have changed so drastically in the intervening ten years (I mean, not to break my promise, but just look at Franzen himself – Freedom is the perfect example of having spent ten more years in this country) that this book cannot represent our century. But I think it does a really terrific job at capturing what life was like ten years ago. It feels historical without feeling like it’s stuck in time. It is very ‘of a time’ and yet quite universal. And it was exactly what I needed right this moment.