When someone actually turns down an Oprah book club choice (which tends to
tremendously increase book sales), it makes me perk up my ears and be curious
about the book. If that’s what Franzen wanted, he achieved it: with me,
at least. I bought the book and thoroughly enjoyed the first chapter, thinking,
Wow! This is worth the controversy!
Then I proceeded to the next chapter—and got stuck for the next approximately
hundred pages. It took hard work and a lot of determination, but I made it through
those grueling pages. And then I did finish the remaining four-hundred-some
pages relatively quickly after that (it helped being stuck on a plane for nine
hours). If anything, I felt like the end pulled together too quickly, not giving
you time to reflect or
remember all the carefully set out characterization from
earlier on in the novel.
The novel is about the Lambert family: Alfred and Enid, the elderly midwestern
parents of grown-up east-coast children Gary, Chip, and Denise. The story is
about the relationship among the loosely connected family, both in the past
and present. The primary question is how the family is going to deal with what’s
happening to Alfred, the patriarch, who’s contracted Parkinson’s disease.
Each of the children, ensconced in their busy lives, has a different opinion
of what he or she thinks should be done about it and level of willingness to
do something about it.
It’s an excellent description of modern inter-generational communication
and lack thereof, of modern familial disconnectedness and misconceptions. The
problem for me as a reader stemmed from how disconnected the characters seemed
to be from each other. Franzen spent about a third of the novel characterizing
each of the children, and they lived such separate lives—and each had such
ingrained opinions of the rest of the family that I got sucked into each time
I was “with” one of them—that it felt like a terrible jolt to
move from one person’s life to the other. (The one I got stuck on was Chip,
by the way. I had issues with Chip.) And by the time I’d moved on it was
hard to connect the details of the family’s individual histories.
All in all, unless you’re a patient person in a particularly patient mood,
this book just might be worth skipping. The moments of brilliance are there,
but the frustration may not be worth the time spent.