Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Corrections (2001)

From the outside, it sure looked like Jonathan Franzen figured out a neat way to have his cake and eat it too when he publicly squawked about his third novel being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. Not that that's what he intended by expressing his reservations, but that's what he got. Sales went through the roof as Oprah's army descended on it, and then the notoriety when Winfrey herself reversed an invitation to him to appear on her show served to maintain the high profile awhile longer (even as Oprah's army grumbled about the rudeness). It may have all been a bit embarrassing for everyone involved, but actually few novels deserve the kind of attention this one subsequently received, however inadvertent. The Corrections takes the all too familiar premise of repressed suburban family dysfunction and spins it into something elaborate, sturdy, and fine, plunging us into the adventures of the Lambert family, whose three children, middle-aged or verging on it, attempt to cope with the demise of their parents and various dissolutions of their lives, in progress. Each has landed differently, each with a plan for managing. The eldest boy is a banker with a wife, two kids, and a rigid personality. The middle boy is a liberal arts college professor in trouble for sexual peccadilloes, a perpetual adolescent forever in black leather jacket sneer, forever beating at the doors of cool. And the youngest girl, Denise, is a chef who has recently elected to embark on an affair with the wife of her boss. Denise, with their father perishing from a debilitating disease and their mother barely dealing with it, has set herself to organizing one last family Christmas, in which none of the rest is particularly interested. And so it goes. Told with an unerring eye for the details that break hearts and turn the whole world wide open, this novel careens across time and space and avoids all the tired old cliches of its type, enlivening them unexpectedly, bringing a freshness and originality that is poignant and captivating, and often daunting, as every one of the characters sooner or later takes a turn on the tightrope of emotional recklessness—with no nets ever. If hardly the first novel to take on the anxieties of the mid-20th-century middle-class American family, it's far and away one of the best I've seen.

In case it's not at the library.

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