April 28, 2014

Guest Review! The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Title: The Corrections
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Fourth Estate Paperbacks
Published: Sept. 2, 2002
Paperback: 566 pgs

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After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man—or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.

Winter is beginning to blow across the Kansan prairies and Enid and Alfred Lambert are struggling alone, the way they always have. Alfred has been diagnosed with Parkinson's and Enid is overwhelmed by his deterioration. Their house is falling apart and she needs help in St. Jude, but her three children, all living on the East Coast, can't handle the responsibility. She has a history of exaggerating anyway. Enid needs to convince them she's sincere. She needs to find a way to penetrate their defenses. Her recruitment strategy is Christmas. The one request that no normal child could deny a mother, and, as Enid ardently believes, is a time for miracles, but the Lamberts have never felt normal. They didn't do things like most families in St. Jude, they felt weird and different, so her children resist.

Jonathan Franzen's novel, The Corrections, is ostensibly for those who lived in a nuclear unit shamed by admitting personal, psychological, or physical problems to the outside world. For people whose mother's highest aspiration was, or still is, to appear just like her friends, and a father out to destroy her illusion. By the end of the novel, the Lamberts feel familiar whether you share experiences with them or not. The Lamberts exhibit those push-and-pull relationships between siblings and parents that knot everyone confusingly together.

Franzen's 566 page novel encompasses roughly 70 years of the Lambert family's history to explain why the children's problems and successes are direct descendants of Alfred and Enid's midwestern values. Franzen's novel laments the replacement of hard-working, loyal citizens by the fast-moving, superficial, it's-cheaper-and-easier-to-buy-a-new-one-than-fix-it, consumer economy. But the novel does not romanticize the loss, which is declared immediately by the title of the first section: ST. JUDE (St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes). Franzen's novel pulls apart the Lambert's aggregate family history to examine which components to trash and which to save like so many familiar spring cleanings. The search for balance is the novel's merit.

The problem within each Lambert child is the glaring dichotomy between the values taught by Alfred and Enid and those of the East. Each child embraces an Eastern character type: Denise Lambert, a successful, emotionally cold, chef dripping with sex appeal in a 5-star restaurant that's the paradigm of cool; Gary Lambert, an alcholic (by today's standards) banker who attended the Wharton Business Academy but decided to become financially comfortable because that's cooler than being a millionaire; and Chip Lambert, a straight, white, male academic at a Connecticut college teaching Queer Theory who, also, believes that he’s rather cool.

The novel switches between each character's present and the past that ultimately created their problems. The character's are at the mercy of their own limitations, which are decades removed from the situations engendering them. The novel, structured around how the past affects our decision making in the future, follows each member of the Lambert family while they fight, fail, and fight again the slogging past. The ones who prefer to keep their illusions intact instead of trying new things or having new experiences do the least healing by the end.

Guest Reviewer, Mike!

Mike Robbins is currently an Americorps VISTA volunteer in New Haven, CT. Mike has always enjoyed books across many genres. His favorite books growing up were Jurassic Park and Timeline by Michael Crichton and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. He finds books to be a place for people to connect and learn privately about themselves and the world. Novels help to slow down and make navigable increasingly fast-paced lives.
When he's not volunteering at a school or tackling a new author, he likes to skateboard, swim, and play basketball. He's a New York Knicks fan even though they don't have the best management strategies!
He would like to thank everyone at the Good Choice Reading blog for including him and his book reviews on their site. Happy reading!

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