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Life, love, betrayal and redemption. A college basketball player forgoes a sports career to marry a good and decent man with whom she is not really in love. She is besotted with his womanising, seemingly unattainable best friend who is a musician. The consequences of this decision will play out over several decades. This epic book has it all. The superbly drawn characters became real to me as they struggled to find meaning in their lives. This was an excellent study of the psychology of relationships, but above all it was a very human story. Brilliant writing. This is my first go at a Jonathon Franzen book. I will definitely be reading more of his work.
Good writing but I couldn't identify with the characters and I didn't really care what happened. I didn't really get the social commentary (if that was the point) but I don't live in the USA, so maybe that's why.
This was such a long winded, wordy book! It took absolutely forever to read, and what could have been said in 200 pages, took 600. I ended up just skimming over the more boring bits. I won't be seeking out any more of his work, that's for sure!
Based on other reviews, this seems to be a real Marmite book, with people either loving it or loathing it. I got it free as some kind of Kindle special offer and I was a bit apprehensive starting it because it has a lot of negative reviews. But luckily for me, it grabbed me immediately and I really enjoyed it. It is a family saga, centred around an ageing couple and their three grown-up children, and I think my enjoyment stemmed from the fact that the dynamics were so instantly familiar. I must admit that my pleasure was tempered in places by the fact that the familiarity was incredibly close to the bone. The story touches on many universal themes - the difficulties we have coping as we get older, the expectations that the older generation have of the younger generation, the need of the younger generation to build their own lives, and the conflicts that all this brings. Despite these "heavy" issues, the book has a humorous tone, and although it is very long, it is extremely well written. I haven't read any Jonathan Franzen before and I was very impressed with his literary style.
Franzen writes such brilliant characters. This isn't a book about plot, although I really enjoyed discovering how the story unfolded. Instead, this is about gaining an understanding of how the characters tick. And Franzen does this brilliantly. You heard the voice of each main character and grow to love them. And then you move on to another, while the plot gives structure. Superb.
This is a hugely enjoyable book, mainly because of the excellent writing. The framework is, I suppose, modern American life. I guess it helps a little not to be American, so you can discount the many implausiblilities by telling yourself, ah, well, I suppose this could happen in America. (I was surprised at how many of the local references and current argot were unfamiliar/impenetrable to me). The characters are not exactly grotesques, but there is something of the Dickensian exaggeration about them, which makes it all the more suprising that I was often very moved (at least twice to tears) by what happened to them. But the family saga framework is intricately and skillfully worked out, without exactly being a plot. Franzen manages to touch on just about every current modern theme, most obviously, environmentalism and freedom, though strangely he avoids racism - blacks and the poor get one, totally insignificant walk-on part each. All the themes are treated comprehensively, and all are shown to be intractable. As is the main theme of the book, the puzzling phenonomeon of love. Given the intractability of this, I can't blame him for his method of bringing the book to a conclusion (and not just because I was totally unconvinced at the same time as being totally moved). I was, though, utterly mesmerised by the writing - the prose, and the storytelling, of course, but most of all the constantly surprising and interesting riffs on all sorts of subthemes - in politics, economics, environmentalism, family life, community life, etc. I liked so many of them, and loved the one on cats.
I mentionded Dickens, and I suppose the most surprising thing about this book is how old fashioned it really is and how modern it really feels. In this last regard, his treatment of sex is exemplary. Its insistent and troubling nature is there for all to see (and feel!).All its variations are graphically allowed their spot in the limelight (at least the heterosexual ones - the strong, male loves are convncingly matey, and certainly no basis for a life), but it is surrounded by neither moralising mystery nor sub-teen prurience or porn. There is also no feeling of having a writerly sex interlude, it is all part of the grand story. Is that what modern sex is?
Tolstoy said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but I've never really believed that. Certainly, the families of Walter and Patty Berglund are very similar: each of them is the outsider, the family scapegoat, bullied by both parents and siblings. That should perhaps make them a natural couple, but Patty really yearns for Walter's cool friend Richard, the laid-back, womanising musician. In the end, she settles for Walter and they build a life together in small-town Minnesota with two children of their own.
It would be easy to dislike Patty but I didn't. She's an innocent who, when she does bad things, does them not out of malice but almost accidentally. Her one great gift, as a basketball player, is taken from her by injury. Mild-mannered Walter, meanwhile, with his endless concerns for the environment and zero-population growth, matures into a man nearly burned alive by anger.
At first I found the prose style annoying, with its very long, rambling, unstructured sentences (I found one that went on for two pages), but I got used to it after a while and it ceased to bother me. The chapters are also long, each centred on one member of the small group of main characters, some of them a sort of autobiography written by Patty, which will come back to bite her in the end.
This is a profoundly sad book: people are unhappy; government is corrupt; big business amoral and self-seeking. The fact that it manages to end on a note of hope is a small blessing. Franzen's message may be the same as Forster's in Howard's End -- that what matters is personal relations and being kind to each other.
Anyone who occasionally considers writing a novel shouldn't read Jonathan Franzen. He makes you just give up. Not only does he do the big things - family, freedom, entrapment by society, the hugely different perspectives of rich and poor, educated and uneducated - but he manages the fine-grained stuff perfectly as well - the little (big) lies, the ways in which we fool ourselves as much as we are fooling those around us. And on top of all this he manages to weave the big stuff together with the small and he tells a story. Admittedly, the story - the plot - is not a page-turner, but one wants to know about the characters enough to wonder what is happening with them. The story is told persuasively.
But you don't read it for the plot. You read it for the depth of its commentary on everyday life. Other reviewers here have compared Franzen here with Updike and Tolstoy, but for me it was more like Richard Yates and Revolutionary Road. It was about the disappointments and road-blocks we face in our everyday choices - about the kind of work that we choose to do, about the choices of life partner we make and the compromises we let ourselves into in making those choices. So, none of us is free. Yet we persuade ourselves that we are making the right choices - we delude ourselves that we have done it right. So, Walter the environmentalist gets into bed with big oil persuading himself with his potty Green plan that it is best for a little bird, but the loss of a mountain compared to the tiny gain for the bird is obvious to everyone except Walter and his beautiful assistant - whom he also gets into bed with, leaving his wife Patty to explore her own compromise in having married Walter and not having gone with the much sexier Richard, all of those years ago. And when she does eventually go with Richard, it all falls apart of course. Moral: they would have been better staying with their compromises; better not pretending to themselves that something better - something more unequivocally 'them' - was tantalisingly within reach.
Like the other reviewers I was surprised ('disappointed' would be too strong a word) by the way that Franzen didn't manage to change the style and register of Patty's writing from his own, apart from the occasional rather gross clue (such as Patty's use of scare quotes). And (having the uncorrected version) I was surprised that he thought Cypress was a place. But, hey, it shows he is human and we can surely celebrate.
Probably the best novel I've ever read (apart from The Corrections).
Franzen's attempt to write a 21st century Tolstoy-style novel almost works except that in Tolstoy's day there was no widespread discussion of the issues so it made sense to have Tolstoy's characters debate land possession, the rights of the proletariat and so on, whereas today we have the internet where the pros and cons of population growth, the Iraq War, or the Environment have already been thrashed to a halt, and so when Franzen repeats them in this novel, they don't carry the same weight and I skipped all the political sections.
What Franzen is so good at is family relations and for me, a female, he gives a wondrous look into the masculine mind and sexual drive. Anne Tyler, who insists on writing novels from the male point of view should read this book closely.
I found both the sex-crazed Richard and the anal retentive Walter more convincing than the heroine, Patty, whose later persona as a mixed up mother and wife does not follow well from her teenage years as an outstanding athlete.
Still, Jonathan is a formidable writer and I think deserves all the accolades. [...]