Hot take: I enjoyed this more than The Corrections.
Note: Very minor spoiler
I think there are two reasons why: The first is that there was a lot of hype around that book and I honestly missed the hype around this one. (Always a good thing for me.) The second reason is that there is nothing so egregious in this novel as Franzen’s utterly bizarre and baffling decision to make Lithuania a failed state in The Corrections without clearly indicating we were in an alternate reality. That, for me, was a massive issue for that novel and undercut how I felt about that whole segment of it.
Franzen is a writer I don’t entirely love. At times I marvel at his writing or I laugh out loud but then I cringe or I wonder why the hell he would write something like that. I also find his attention to detail isn’t always up to the standard of the novelists he’s compared with. As I said, there’s nothing here as bizarre as the “I couldn’t bother to do the tiniest bit of research about Lithuania” here but there are still moments where I get the sense that he has done only cursory research about one of his characters’ idiosyncrasies. I should have written some down for this review, but I didn’t.
There isn’t a character in this book as egregious as Chip but I do still sort of feel like Walter is cut from a similar, somewhat lazy cloth. Don’t get me wrong, Walter is a much better character than Chip but there’s still an obvious contradiction in him that feels contrived. Whereas Chip is the feminist literary theory prof who is a sex addict (how clever!), Walter is the population reduction advocate is who is just desperate for a third child. Fortunately, Franzen ends that pretty quickly and so, again, I liked this novel better.
Franzen seems to be nearly unable to focus on a character who isn’t at least somewhat obsessed with sex. (Even Enid and Alfred have their moments.) As someone who is not as obsessed with sex as these people, and who is roughly the age of some of them, I find it hard to relate to. I also find it hard to understand how literally every major character in his novels that I’ve read are depressed. He seems to think that people want sex and are otherwise depressed. Homo sexus or homo exanimationes incidamus (ha), I guess. That doesn’t bother me as much as as it bothers some, but I do sometimes get tired of these people and their misery.
But I mostly enjoyed it, he kept me turning the pages and I definitely found it more…um, not fun, than The Corrections but more engrossing (and less annoying!). And I should clarify, there were parts of The Corrections that I liked more than this book, but only parts. Also, despite myself, I found myself moved by the happy ending even though I hate happy endings (so I tell myself) and it felt a little too clean.
I understand that I have more negative to say than positive, but it’s always easier to find the faults. On the whole, I enjoyed this book: the characters felt like real people (for the most part) and I just plowed through it despite its length.