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Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections

First, this book was massively hyped – a mega-novel that might be successful, unlike many other mega-novels which turned out not to be the next big thing. Then Franzen pissed off Oprah by not being wildly enthusiastic about being in her book club. Nevertheless, the book sold. Was it worth it?

Actually, sort of but not really. It is not a bad novel at all, telling the story of the inner workings of a somewhat but not too dysfunctional family in quite some detail. There are five Lamberts (and various friends, relatives, spouses, lovers, business associates and so on). Father is Alfred, a retired railroad engineer, scrupulously honest and conventional who, when the books starts, is slowly sinking into dementia. His wife is Enid, hoarder, organiser, unhappy, unable to cope with her husband’s dementia and her children’s vagaries. Gary is a relatively successful banker (who has made some money on the side), married to Caroline, who has money of her own. They have three sons and Caroline seems to use them to control Gary, who is very anally retentive. Denise has had a failed marriage but learned to cook from her husband and opens up a fancy restaurant with Brian, a well-to-do entrepreneur. She has a brief fling with Brian but is fired by him when he finds out that Denise has been having an affair with his wife.

Finally, there is Chip, the most interesting of the three. Chip was an English lecturer at a small college, till he is seduced by a student, who promptly accuses him of sexual harassment and he is thrown out. He tries writing a screenplay (we sees bits of it and it is awful) but is then hired by his ex-girlfriend’s husband to set up a website in Lithuania, where the political and economic situation is falling apart and he barely escapes with his life.

Simple, huh? Really, it’s quite a conventional novel, which shows how most of us try hard to cope with our lives but don’t really do a good job, because we do something stupid, something unexpected happens or because someone else does not behave in the way we expect. The result is simple. We adapt, we cope or we die. Alfred dies, the other four get on with their lives in their own way, even if that life is not what they had thought it would be. A simple story for what is really a simple novel.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux