Family Dysfunction: The Corrections – by Jonathan Franzen

Tragicomedy

This book stood on my shelf unread for years. The blurb made me want to have read it, but not to read it. It seemed both shallow (about a family christmas?!) and pretentious: “The Corrections brings an old-fashioned world of civic virtue and sexual inhibitions into violent collision with the era of home surveillance, hands-off parenting, do-it-yourself mental health care, and globalized greed”. Surprisingly, it was neither.

In retrospect, the blurb was technically accurate, but it’s misleading. The Corrections centers on a midwestern family: elderly parents and their three adult children who left home long ago for the East Coast. At the book’s heart is their dysfunction, both in their own lives and with each other. Each of the children had sought to escape their parents, to build better lives for themselves, but they all ended up unhappy, and their parents continue to cause them trouble. They are also deeply critical of each other and their lives – Gary sold out; Chip is a failure; Denise thrives on chaos. Each member of the family is an island; they don’t help each other or even try to understand one another. They feel trapped in their lives with no chance to change. By the end of the book, some of them finally gain redemption and clarity. Others never do. That’s part of what makes this book so good – its imperfect happy ending. Few books that I have read felt so real.

The first few pages drew me in with their lyricism – sheerly gorgeous words, like poetry or a spoken story. It was a little dense – stick with it! – not to mention confusing, but soon I had the pleasure of meeting the real attractions of the book: three screwed up siblings. At first, they’re comically unlikeable; you keep reading for entertainment. But progressively through the book, as the perspective switches amongst the five family members, you can’t help but root for all of them, no matter how selfish or gratuitous their actions. They’re not evil people, after all, although it takes a while for some of them to show it.

I can’t recommend this book enough. If you’re looking for a story about a family, about people’s lives, that feels real, then this is definitely the book for you. It is pretty long and sometimes goes on a bit; it also might feel a little too close to home for some, hitting a nerve. But you’ll be glad you persevered with it. By the end, you’ll be left with an odd sense of peace and faint optimism.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA (10)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Medium

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A Window into the Privileged of London: A Week in December – by Sebastian Faulks

Romance, Tragicomedy

A Week in December is a window into the lives of London’s wealthy. It’s narrated by diverse people connected, directly or through mutual friends, by a dinner party; they’re chosen by the host, socialite Sophie Topping, to reflect well on her husband, the newest Conservative MP Lance Topping. Of the list, a handful at most are not millionaires – including unsuccessful barrister Gabriel Northwood and cynical, bitter book reviewer R. Tranter. The rest are a familiar mix of obnoxious businessmen and their skinny wives, a repugnant TV magnate and a surprisingly endearing Polish footballer who is new to the country. As they go about their daily lives, they emulate the ‘spirit’ of the city, with many of them questioning (or unintentionally urging the reader to question) the lack of purpose in their existences. Although many of these people are not kind or likeable, they’re intriguing; I wanted to know what would happen, what decisions they’d make. More than anything, many of them seem like real people, reminding me of people I know or know of.

I suppose this sensation, along with my new-found cynicism of hedge-funds, is unsurprising; I’m expected to challenge our society and its materialism after finishing Faulks’ satirical, aspiring ‘state of the nation’ novel. Many of Faulks’ characters are stereotypical wealthy Londoners: egotistical, self-important and money-obsessed. I deduce that the ‘moral’ of the book is that, despite their privilege, their lives aren’t happy. No amount of money or insincere socialising can give a life substance or enjoyment. Near the end of the book, during the dinner party, minor character Roger Malpasse drunkenly berates Veals for the ruthless and underhanded practices of the Financial industry, his rant highlighting the pinnacle of Veals’ disgusting personality, demonstrated in hid unrelenting mission to bring down a major bank – and a load of African farmers with it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hassam al-Rashid, who is a jihad-in-training and son of entrepreneur  Farooq al-Rashid (an invitee of the Topping’s party). In Hassam’s sections of the novel, he broods on the Kafir (consumerist, irreligious) world and its disgusting ways, viewing his terrorist activities as an ever-important mission from God, an escape from impiety. Although I enjoyed his character as a change from the others and an insight into a world I know nothing about, I didn’t find him wholly convincing.

Their cynical, circumspect voices work as within an orchestra to render life in London and its diversity. Many of them are realistic, interesting and even likeable, but there were also some that were unpleasant and desperately boring – in particular, Veals, who gives a shameful face to his business and, most disappointingly, doesn’t change at all during the book. I’m sure he is intended to disappoint, representing everything wrong about the rich of London and their inauthentic means of earning money, but I couldn’t help finding him plain annoying – especially his monotonous descriptions of financial deals.

At times, sentences read disjointedly due to their length and uninteresting subject content, and I wasn’t always compelled to pick the book up. However, after about half way, I started to enjoy it more as I became more hooked into the ‘plot’ (although loose). Overall, A Week in December is a good-quality, well-written book – an interesting commentary on life in London. I can’t, however, guarantee it for ‘grip’ or sustained interest. If you like The Casual Vacancy, or perhaps Ian McEwan’s books, then you’ll love it.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium/Slow

Buy on Amazon (UK)

Buy on Amazon (US)

Buy at Waterstones

A change from Harry Potter: The Casual Vacancy – By J. K. Rowling

Tragicomedy

When Barry Fairbrother – a popular and ambitious councilman – dies unexpectedly, Pagford is left in shock. The ostensibly quaint, idyllic town, with its ancient abbey and cobbled market square, becomes increasingly chaotic as the mad scramble for the empty council seat turns nasty. Deep-rooted resentment and discontentment fuels teenagers to turn against parents, and incites wives to desert their husbands. Issues that had previously been kept at bay threaten to divide the town, as anger and passion overwhelm some, and the disparity between generations and classes becomes increasingly palpable.

I was riveted by this book, despite its length and relatively mundane premise – perhaps this was because of its ‘closeness to home’: I related to many of the characters; Rowling’s satirical reflections on suburban life are accurate, if not stereotypical. Written in split-narrative, the book relates to all readers: the narrators are of different classes, ages and personalities. The interplays and contradictions that the reader is given is intriguing and often humorous; when characters describe each other, you’re reminded of the gap between the outward and inward ‘selves’ that people have. Overall, it’s a good book, and I enjoyed reading it, however at times I felt it dragged on a bit.

Readers who enjoy a slow paced book about everyday life, as opposed to an other-worldly plot, would enjoy The Casual Vacancy. They would also like it if they like books that don’t have a grand plot; The Casual Vacancy is based on everyday life in the suburbs: familial relationships and social interactions amongst townspeople.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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Buy at Waterstones

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