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Monday, April 11, 2011



Jonathon Franzen

FSG, 2010

The idyllic lives of civic-minded environmentalists Patty and Walter Berglund come into question when their son moves in with aggressive Republican neighbors, green lawyer Walter takes a job in the coal industry, and go-getter Patty becomes increasingly unstable and enraged.

Please forgive me if I hesitate over reviewing this novel. At over 550 pages it is a hefty tome to briefly explain if not to read. Yet, read it I did, in one feverish week. No, I wasn’t ill; I just needed to know what happened to these people and I can’t even explain why. The characters weren’t especially likeable. In fact, many of them were extremely unlikeable and even disagreeable. They weren’t especially sympathetic, either, since most of their problems stemmed from their own bad decisions. I think the reason I became “one” with this book for several days is the momentum the author created that pulls the reader in and locks her into place until she finishes the book.

The story is really many stories, all intricately plotted and carefully revealed bit by bit. The point of view changes between characters, some central to the story and some peripherally related, but each of which gives just a bit, just a hint, of the whole, sentence by enticing sentence. As a reader, I had an idea of what was going to happen, but I wasn’t quite sure until I actually experienced the next turn of events, and then I had the nerve to actually be surprised by it. I thought I knew the characters so well, you see. And yet, I had to keep reading to see if the other things I was pretty sure would happen actually did or not. And in that sense, this book kept me compulsively reading until the very end, when I snapped it shut with a satisfied sigh and promptly forgot all about it.

So, Miss Compulsive Reader, did you like the book? Yes and no. Yes, because I loved Franzen’s writing style, which is conversational and intimate and witty. As soon as I opened the book and started the first sentence, I just knew I would thoroughly enjoy whatever this book would bring because of the warm and engaging style it had. But I have to say the things I did not enjoy were the characters. I cannot even name one character that was not flawed in some monumental and disturbing way. I also think the many plot lines became too much for the characters to handle, and they got lost in their own world of things happening to them instead of them making things happen themselves. In other words, this book was enjoyable reading but completely forgettable.


Other novels by this author:

Strong Motion, 1992

The Corrections, 2001

Other titles you may enjoy:

Spooner by Pete Dexter (2009)

Losing his father shortly after birth, Warren Spooner endures a troubled childhood and even more troubled young adulthood that is marked by his dishonorably discharged stepfather, whose inexhaustible patience is tested by the difficult Warren.

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (1996)

Judd Mulvaney, now age 30, and the youngest of the four Mulvaney children, looks back through his memories to tell the secrets that eventually ripped apart the fabric of his storybook family.

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich (2010)

After she discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, Irene America turns it into a manipulative farce, while secretly keeping a second diary that includes her true thoughts about her shaky marriage, its affect on her children, and her struggles with alcohol.

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