My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Similar to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which I read shortly before this novel, this is a story of an unhappy family – 2 boys, a daughter, a mother and an absent father. Although Alfred is not physically absent here; rather, he has been emotionally absent for his entire adult life.
As the story opens Alfred is suffering from Parkinson’s disease (though it may not actually ever be named). He has trouble tracking conversations with people: “in the instant of realizing he was lost [in conversation], time became marvelously slow and he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word an the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him.” [p 11] Alfred is emotionally anal retentive and this fixation troubles him later in the story. He will give no emotional support to his wife. “‘Why are you so unhappy? Why won’t you tell me?’ [asked Enid]. ‘I will go to the grave before I tell you. to the grave.'” [p 276]. Not exactly the basis of a happy marriage.
Enid, is having difficulty caring for Alfred and keeping up with managing the house. Her solution is to take Alfred on a cruise to see the Fall colors along the Atlantic Seaboard followed by Christmas at home where the whole family shows up.
Meanwhile the three adult children are going through crises of their own. Chip has left the university where he taught before gaining tenure; Gary, the other boy is having a midlife crisis and may or may not be clinically depressed. “He’d had the sense, moments earlier, that Caroline was on the verge of accusing him of being ‘depressed,’ and he was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never again win an argument.” [p 159]. And last but not least, the daughter, Denise, just lost her job as a top notch chef in Philadelphia.
Franzen does a great job weaving these stories together, devoting a chapter to each family member. The opening pages of each chapter describes interactions in various ways. The first chapter has Enid moving bags of unread mail around the house like a general keeping his troops from being attached by the enemy – Alfred.
I especially liked how he tied together thematic elements. Aslan is the lion in the C.S. Lewis series that one of Gary’s kids is reading; it is also the name of a drug that Chip has taken and that Enid is prescribed on during the cruise. Furthermore the company that manufactures Aslan depends on a patent that Alfred filed and Gary strives to help get more money from the company for his father.
By the end of the story, everyone makes corrections. Some are physical – job and city changes; but not all. “‘And when the event, the big change in your life, is simply an insight – isn’t that a strange thing? That absolutely nothing changes except that you see things differently and you’re less fearful and less anxious and generally stronger as a result: isn’t it amazing that a completely invisible thing in your head can feel realer than anything you’ve experienced before? You see things more clearly and you know that your seeing them more clearly.'” [p 302]
Franzen employs some beautiful imagery (which I’m a total sucker for)
– “Alfred gestured at his blue chair, which under the paperhanger’s plastic dropcolths looked like something you might deliver to a power station on a flatbed truck.” [p 9]
– “The light was the color of car sickness.” [p 18]
– “Cauterized liver had the odor of fingers that had handled dirty coins.” [p 251]
– “A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister.” [p253]
– “Between his dry skin and his shakes, peeling the backing off a strop was like picking up a marble with two peacock feathers.” [p 287]
– “Denise watched the sky stick forks of lightning into the slad of the trees on the Illinois horizon.” [p 358]
– “His desire brought cool topical relief to the dryness and crackedness, the bodywide distress, of her person.” [p 394]
This is a very good book and the recurring motifs and interlocking plot elements could be excellent for a book club discussion