Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections: A Novel Last year, there was quite a bit written about author Jonathan Franzen, from the Time Magazine cover  hailing him as "the Great American Novelist" to backlash about the praise he received from literary lions such as the New York Times as compared to that given to his female author counterparts.  I read all this, including praise for his newest book, Freedom: A Novel, knowing that it was time to finally read The Corrections: A Novel which had languished on my shelves for years (I had the Oprah hardback edition - it was that old!)

Where to begin?  I always find it hardest to review the books I like the most and that is certainly the case with The Corrections: A Novel.  The book is at once insightful, sardonic, and humorous - and the writing is above reproach.  It seems each word is carefully selected and the result is intelligent, impactful prose.  However, at the same time, the writing is accessible which makes the 500+ page book move quickly.

The characters, and the readers' ability to invest in them, also makes the large book move quickly.  At the center of this novel is the mid-western Lambert family in all their dysfunctional glory.  The family is headed by Alfred, a retired engineer now trying to deny his progressive symptoms of Parkinson's and his wife, Enid who worries about everything and everyone in their family and seems haunted by what she has given up over the years for her family.  The Lambert's have three children: Gary, the eldest, has moved East and is brow-beaten by his wife and children; Denise has a successful career as a chef at a the trendy restaurant Generator but her lovelife is less than successful as she dates married men or men with whom she has no future; Chip is a professor who gets fired from his job for sexual indiscretions with an undergrad and seems to be completely floundering when we first meet him.   

Obviously, they each have their own complicated lives and issues but when you put them all together including all the transgressions they have committed against each other over the years, you get emotionally charged scenes escalating towards the Christmas that Enid insists they will all spend together.  I think everyone can relate on some level to the dysfunction seen in the Lambert family - if not to the extreme seen in some of the family members, there are elements which are very resonant for most of us - and therein lies the success of this book.  Many adult children can relate to Denise's reaction to a visit to her parent's home:

On her second day in St. Jude, as on the second day of every visit, she woke up angry.  The anger was an autonomous neurochemical event; no stopping it.  At breakfast, she was tortured by every word her mother said.  Browning the ribs and soaking the sauerkraut according to ancestral custom rather than the modern style she had developed at the Generator, made her angry . . . The hundred-and-one refrigerator magnets, puppy-dog sentimental in their iconography and so feeble in their pull that you could scarcely open the door without sending a snapshot of Jonah or a postcard of Vienna swooping to the floor, filled her with rage. 

What I found so smart about this passage is that Denise's fury appears on the second day - after all, she loves her parents and wants to have a successful visit but then is just overwhelmed by frustrations and begins to repeat patterns from her childhood.  The book is filled with loaded family interactions and Franzen expertly sets up each scene.

I found reading The Corrections: A Novel to be a thoroughly satisfying experience and I will certainly be reading Freedom: A Novel  - what I have learned from this experience is that sometimes hype is justified!

Have you or will you be reading either book?


  1. I tried to read this, but couldn't get past the intense hatred that I felt for, well, everyone. i did keep it so I might revisit. I here it is amazing if you can make it all the way to the end. Maybe you can convince me at brunch!

  2. It really is harder to write about the books we love! I loved The Corrections and agree with all you've said about Franzen's writing. My book club, however, was split down the middle. I read Freedom last month (it was one of my favorite books of 2010), yet I still haven't found the words to write about it.

    Wish I could join you guys for brunch, but I'm a little too far upstate for a daytrip.... maybe next time!

  3. Funny about hype isn't it? I think it can actually work in a cyclical way. For me when a book is extremely hyped, I start to assume it isn't actually all that good after all. If it appeals to EVERYONE then there must be a very lowest-common-denomenator thing going on. Kind of like The Da Vinci Code. So I often will have very low expectations of very hyped books. That said, I do not like Mr. Franzen as a person and won't be tackling his massive tomes. I think he's an a$$.

  4. I'm always wary of hyped books, but this one has lived through the hype for nearly a decade now, so I suppose that counts for something. It's been on my shelf nearly as long, and I am definitely hoping to pick it up soon. I'd like to read Freedom, too.

  5. Ooh I'm glad to see a great review for this! I haven't read it yet but have read so much about it not living up. I have Freedom waiting patiently to be read (which I will get to soon!) so hopefully I will enjoy it and will get to this one after!

  6. I read an article in support of Jonathan Franzen when all that uproar happened earlier this year, and the writer of the article said lots of nice things about how he writes about women. So yes, I am going to read The Corrections! I only haven't read it so far because a jerky guy I used to work with recommended it to me. He put me off. :p

  7. I am glad someone liked it because to be honest I think it was one of the worst books I ever read. I wouldlike to say that I at least finished but I seriously couldn't manage it and that is really rare for me. I know how popular it is and that I am the weird one that is missing something - I just wish I knew what. It was the first book I had to rate with 1 star out of 8 :-(

    I think its because I felt like I was reading all back story and nothing actually happened.

    I was so looking forward to it too!

    Anyway, here is my review if you wanted to read it

  8. I've never read Franzen, but I always figured I would start with this one over Freedom since there's less hype about it. Your review makes it sound really good - I love dysfunctional Christmas scenes :)

  9. This book is on my book shelf waiting to be read. It sounds even better than I expected. Thanks for the nice review.

  10. See now you've made me feel guilty about my copy of The Corrections which has been waiting on the shelves since June. :)

  11. I haven't read The Corrections, but I do have Freedom sitting on the shelf. It was kind of an accidental buy...I forgot to skip that shipment of Indiespensible. So while I'll get to it someday, it's not on the read me now list, despite (or maybe because of) all the hype.

  12. Fantastic! I enjoyed Freedom. (I'm actually having more positive thoughts about it than when I first finished it; it's a novel that has stuck with me.) I hope to read this one sometime this year too, so I hope I'm as positive about it as you are!

  13. Great review! New follower! Stop by and say hi if you get a chance!
    Have a great weekend!

  14. Excellent review. I read this and had mixed feelings. At times, I thought it was smart and funny and fresh and I loved it. Then it just got too scatological for me. I ended up almost wishing I hadn't read it.

    Thanks for participating in the Battle of the Prizes, British Version. I was surprised to see that this book by an American author won the Scottish James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I added your review to the list ont he challenge wrap up post here.

    If you have other reviews to add, leave me a comment on the wrap up post with any links and I will add them to the list.

    I hope you sign up again this year. I'll have the 2011 challenge posts up tomorrow.

  15. Jonathan Franzen has created a book important enough to make us think and react.