by Jonathan Franzen
© 2001 - Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Chosen as a selection for Oprah's Book Club
, September 24, 2001
I must admit, I hadn't heard of this book until the Sunday morning that I woke up and read comments that the author had made to The Oregonian about being chosen as a selection for Oprah's Book Club. I ended up curious about the book, and checked it out of the library. The library has over 400 copies. I guess they order lots of extra copies of Oprah books. A lot of people have the opinion that the books that Oprah chooses for her book club are "schmaltzy", including Franzen, which I agree with to a point. But, I have read enough of her selections now out of pure curiosity to realize that the woman doesn't have horrible taste in books, but she doesn't always choose books that I find interesting. In any event, being chosen as a selection for her book club guarantees you more sales and a place in the New York Times bestseller list, and Franzen should have been more grateful for this honor. If you only want a certain type of person to read your book (i.e. people with degrees in literature) rather than any average person (i.e. an Oprah viewer), then you shouldn't publish it. You can't control who picks up your book and reads it once its published any more than you can control the weather.
With that aside... on to the review!
The story follows the Lamberts, a Midwestern family of five through their ups and downs as the adult children make their way in the world and the parents stay at home and grow older. Enid and Alfred live in St. Jude, Kansas in the family home. Gary, the oldest, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and three sons. Chip, the middle child, lost his job as a professor and trying his hand at writing a screenplay in New York City. Denise, the youngest, escaped a bad marriage to found a restaurant in Philadelphia with the help of a tech millionaire.
The plot follows each member of the family separately, giving you their back-story and integrating it with the others as the story builds to the climax of the family Christmas in St. Jude. I found the parts about the children to be the most interesting, probably because I can relate to those characters better than I can to older adults like Enid and Alfred. The story moves at a good pace and rarely drags, except in a few parts, particularly on the cruise that Enid and Alfred take. I found myself getting bored during Alfred's hallucinatory conversation with a turd, but once the story moved past that part, it picked back up again.
Franzen did a particularly good job in describing how difficult things are for other members of the family when a person who was always the strong one begins to age and deteriorate. As Alfred's condition got worse throughout the story, I found myself feeling badly for the rest of the family, as though they were real people I knew. I actually found myself with tears in my eyes during a few poignant moments. It's rare that a book can do that to me.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and I can see why Oprah chose this novel as a book club selection. It is a novel that could appeal to anyone with a family that isn't quite normal, and that covers most everyone.
I would rate this 4 out of 5 stars.