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

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)