Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections

In November 2010, my father died. He had been sick for years and then one day in November, he got sick in the night, was taken to the hospital and died later in the day – totally unexpected. My mother had been taken care of him and always put herself second. She called me and told me about how their life was, but although I felt bad for her, although I listened to her and tried to help her, I don’t think I ever really got it. I don’t think I ever understood how hard it was for her – not only having to take care of him but also feeling somewhat good and especially relieved when he was finally put into a nursing home.
I was reminded of all this when reading this book.
This is a book about the Lamberts, Enid and Alfred and their three grown-up children, Gary, Chip and Denise. Each of these has their own issues they struggle with. Enid and Alfred still live in the home where they raised their children even though it’s slowly falling apart and to big for just the two of them. Alfred is struggling with early Parkinsons and maybe dementia, making it a real chore for Enid to take care of him.
Enid is desperately trying to keep her family together. She’s old-fashioned, has strict rules for how people ought to behave and is not always proud of the choices her children make. She comes across as a typical woman, set in her ways and determine to present herself to the neighborhood as having the perfect home and family.
This is a story of a mother and wife, desperately fighting to have her family together in her home for one last christmas. Enid lives a life where she has to have something to look forward to to be able to make it – a cruise, the family christmas – but when you pin all your hopes on one thing, you are disappointed more often than not.Her children each struggle with their own problems – and neither of them are really living up to their mother’s expectations.
Chip is the intellectual, he’s a struggling screenplay writer after he was fired from his job as a professor after having a relationship with one of his students. This not only lands him in a position where he owes his sister a lot of money but also makes him take a rather questionable job in Lithuania with his ex-girlfriend’s husband.
Gary is the eldest brother. He lives with his wife and their three boys. Gary wants to be in control. He’s desperately trying not to admit that his life maybe isn’t perfect – in that way, he’s a lot like his mother. He’s fighting what seems to be a depression and is having a power struggle in his marriage, especially since his wife can’t stand his mother.
Denise might be my favorite character in the book. She’s working hard to be what she wants to be. She’s an amazing chef and after a failed marriage, she suddenly get the opportunity of a lifetime to be the chef of a new restaurant where she gets to do whatever she wants and where the owner has money enough to support her no matter what. Denise, however, is struggling with her identity and sexuality and this is making her life rather difficult.
Both Denise and Chip are having issues in their professional life because of their sexuality – something that’s rather hard for their mother to accept and come to terms with – while Gary is the know-it-all who thinks he pretty much should be in charge of everybody.
But it’s so much more than this. This really dives into the relationship between parents and children and between siblings. It’s about children feeling more in the know than their parents ever were, it’s about all the things happening in a family beneath the surface – but sometimes bursting throughs in ways you least expect.
This was an amazing book – especially because of the way it’s written. On the surface, it’s the story of an elderly couple struggling with getting old and sick while their kids are trying to find their way in life, not always having time for their parents. But because of Franzen’s masterly command of language, there is so much more in this book. It’s by no means a dysfunctional family – or at least not a more dysfunctional family than all other families. It’s a perfectly normal and ordinary family fighting with the issues every family faces. And that’s what makes it into such a wonderful book.
I can’t say enough about the excellency of the writing. Not only is it beautiful, it’s also surprising. He uses a lot of words to describe a person – like Gary – and then in just one line, he sums up the totality of Gary’s relationship with his wife. Or at one point in the book, I expected something to happen – it didn’t happen, we switched viewpoint and a couple of pages went by and then it happened anyway and I got so surprised …
I noticed a lot of reviews are calling it a sad book – and it is sad what they are going through. A family with a sick father who’s slipping away is a family desperately trying to find it’s way. Franzen manages to make his characters so real, their struggles so real, their thoughts feelings and fears so very real that maybe it becomes too much for some readers – but I could identify with these people and recognize parts of my family in them so I felt right at home.
Sometimes, we want literature to take us away, sometimes we want a fantastic journey into an unknown reality where we can forget and just sigh with wonder. But sometimes, we need to learn about our own existence, learn about how the people around us are coping, by reading books that strike right at home. This is such a book.

46 thoughts on “Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections

  1. I think I will have to look this one up – part of your review really hit home. Not just because I lost my mother, but mostly because I lost my grandfather last year after several long years of dealing with his alzheimers. My grandmother always used to complain about having “a five year old on her hands”, but now she seems strangly lost without him. I believe feeling relief is normal, but after a while another feeling might set in – the feeling of a lacking purpose. Thanks for sharing and congrats on making f.p.🙂

    • I think my mother would have been lost too if she hadn’t had so much to do with closing down the business they had together and with taking care of my brother.
      And thank you🙂

  2. It does sound sad — or rather, emotional and touching. But I look forward to reading it, as I think many of us can relate to the thrust of the book.

    Thanks for sharing your great review!

    • No, Mikalee, it sounds straight up sad.

      Real problems and realistic characters always have the capacity to pound the sad into until you just leak tears.

      Great review, I might just have to check this out.

  3. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! I read Freedom last year, and am interested in The Corrections. I will definitely give it a try after your review!

  4. I have to say, reading this post made me smile. Not because of the related themes and whatnot, but because of the sheer poetry that we can get from prose sometimes. In these days of insta-everything, it seems to be easier and easier to forget that we can learn SO much from real books. Thank you for sharing your passion about this one – I really do appreciate it.

    Kate
    http://ukate.wordpress.com/

  5. This appears to be a read that those who have aging parents or are struggling to understand issues and values of other generations can relate to. Thank you for sharing information about this book on this blog. Look forward to reading this book.

  6. I read The Corrections this summer and you and I had very similar takes to this book except you expressed it much better than me! Having lost my mother-in-law to Parkinson’s I was stuck by Franzen’s ability to pull together all the family dynamics that are involved in a situation like this. And I agree, he has a beautiful way with words. Wonderful review!

  7. To be honest, I’ve always been more of a David Foster Wallace fan, but after reading your post, I now know that I really do need to give Franzen a chance. The characters sound really interesting, and I always go for a mix of sadness and introspection through character analysis. Great post!

  8. I just want to express my thanks and gratitude to all who have visited my blog today and to WP for making it happen. I’m so happy to be Freshly Pressed that I can’t express it in words right now. It’s late here in my part of the world so I’ll comment more tomorrow. Thank you all!

  9. Christina, I have indeed read this book and hated this book but loved your blog! It, indeed, was far too sad of a tale for me! I read books to escape and discover new places and lands, but this book just felt like it was dragging me into a land of despair! Many people who read this book loved it and I believe it made the best sellers lists for months…..and I always feel like I must have missed something while I was reading it. That is why I checked out your blog and review! I look forward to reading your future recommendations! Keep up the great work!

    • Well, sometimes those very popular books just isn’t for everyone – or, more often than not, I guess. I feel the same way about Underworld by Don DeLillo – I’ve read about half of it and simply didn’t get it. I do want to try it again though and see what all the fuss is about.

  10. Love this book! One of my favorite features is how the point of view shifts to all the different family members and at one time or another each character is both reprehensible and sympathetic.

  11. I read the book but quit half way. Just too depressing for me although his writing is excellent it couldn’t carry me through to the end. Your review is great but at this time in my life I need upbeat books.

  12. I remember reading this book about 7 years ago for a Masters level Literature class. It was a downer at the time. As my parents deal with the aging issues, and being from a large family, I appreciate a look at family relationships because they sure are interesting.

    Congrats on FP! My sister has a blog and she’s experienced FP a few times. Hang on for the ride and enjoy.

    I will come back and visit your site as I am woefully behind in leisure reading. A teacher.

  13. I would read anything written by Jonathan Franzen. His book, “Freedom,” is also very fine. He takes ordinary life, specifically ordinary life in America,and elicits from it what is interesting and meaningful. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  14. Jeanniemn, I agree with you. There is something off, something detached, about Franzen’s family characters. All families have their portion of weirdness but I walked away from The Corrections and Freedom feeling like I had been “manipulated” for the sole purpose of dispair, just because the author could. There are a lot of people who feel the same — you either love Franzen’s writing or hate it. However, what you do with your blog is fabulous! Congrats on being FP’d!

  15. First off, congrats on being freshly pressed. That’s how I found this blog, which I’m going to start following.

    You did a wonderful job selling me on a book with subject matter that would otherwise be too heavy for me to take. But that the novel works on many levels–elderly parents, struggling children, choices and consequences, and commitment–is enough to lure me to this book. I’ll set out to get it.

    Thanks again for this wonderful post!

  16. Glad to have read this review…I have had this book sitting in a closet for a few years and I haven’t mustered up the courage to read it yet, but that will have to change soon.

  17. One thing that I forgot to mention in my review is, how annoyed I was with the mother in the beginning. She just really irritated me – and this was before I had figured out who she reminded me of. This way of being a wife and a mother, is just not for me. I’ve promised myself that I will never put everything I want and am on hold, to serve someone else. I’ve watched my mother put herself second all my life – even though it’s been almost a year since my father died, she’s still doing it and that’s not a life I want for myself.
    We really can learn a lot from books – I don’t know if it’s true that we don’t learn something until we’re ready for it. All I know is, that this book really hit home and gave me some new insights.
    I actually bought Freedom first and it’s on my list of books I want to read this year. But then I found The Corrections very cheap and thought that I might as well start with that instead. Now I kind of want to postpone reading Freedom since Franzen writes so slow and I like having a new book of his waiting for me to be caught up in …! He might be a new favorite author.

  18. Hi Christina,
    I am from Italy and I read this book 6 month ago. I have the same fellings about the life and books as per you final words and I hope to read other rewies from you. I don’t have a favorit novel, because it changes in relation with every single moment of my life and my choices.
    Thanks for this post,
    best
    Celeste

    • Thanks Celeste! I have a number of favorite books. If I had to mention just one, it would probably John Irving’s The World according to Garp. I’ve read it so many times and loved it each time.

  19. I’ve been in the role of sole caregiver for years now, and despite my mother’s hospice-necessitating decline of the last week and a half, I still get a chuckle recalling Alfred’s fate in “The Corrections”. Sorry, but… simply hilarious! Thanks for reminding me of this book (though I read it probably 5 or 6 years ago…)

  20. Nicely done review. I’ll have to put this on my list — I hadn’t paid enough attention to realize what the topic of the book is. My father had Parksonian dementia, and after he died, we realized that my mother’s own dementia had been masked by taking care of my father.

    • Oh yes, that happens sometimes. My grandmother had dementia and as soon as she was taken to a nursing home, my grandfather got sick (lung cancer) and died shortly after. He had put everything into caring for her so he hadn’t had time to be sick – but when that pressure was taken away, he had the time…

  21. Pingback: UK News | Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections

  22. I am currently reading this book right now, reading about Gary’s wife Caroline… all of the characters in this book are somebody we have met, each of them have traits that we hate about people, and about ourselves. And that’s what makes this book a compelling read.

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