The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002. I must admit that when I saw the thickness of the book I almost gave up on it before even opening it, it’s 653 pages long and it was a paperback that I borrowed from the library. I find thick paperbacks really awkward to read. My history with these James TBM winners hasn’t been all that great, but I really liked this one and I don’t really know why I did, because there are so many aspects of it that I really dislike in a book, such as it not having any really likeable characters. Most of them are quite objectionable but at times they all have moments of decency in them and I suppose that made them very human, it’s such a well observed book as far as people and families are concerned I think.

The elderly matriarch Enid Lambert lives in a bit of a fantasy world as far as her three grown up children’s lives are concerned, she’s happy for her friends to believe that they are all successful and everything is hunky dory in their lives. The truth is she hardly ever sees them and is struggling on her own with her husband Alfred who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. All she wants is for her two sons and her daughter to come home for a few days over Christmas – and maybe her daughter-in-law and grandsons too. She wants to have a last family Christmas in the home that they’ve grown up in, then maybe she will be able to sell it and move to somewhere more practical to live in. Alfred is losing his grip on reality, possibly because of the medication he is on.

The trouble is that the adult children’s own lives are a mess, and the more the reader discovers of their childhoods the easier it is to see why they have grown to be such broken and selfish adults whose lives are falling apart.

There were so many scenes in this book that rang bells for me, such as the fight over a child who hates the food he has been given for dinner and is forced to stay at the table until he has eaten it all. That reminded me of a woman I knew who did that with her son – but the outcome there was much more dramatic than the scene in this book!

There’s no doubt that Enid has always been unhappy in her marriage and she punishes them by cooking food she knows that her husband in particular hates. She had married Alfred because he was tall and well-built and he earned good money, but she was never going to be able to stop scrimping, that was just her nature, and she was always comparing her life-style with her friends and neighbours who had husbands with lower moral standards financially than Alfred had. But with a stock market crash on the horizon – will that matter?

Surprisingly the book’s ending is fairly upbeat as most of the characters get a second crack at life, hopefully having learned from their past mistakes.

It seems that there are lots of people who hated this book and gave up on it, but there are also lots who have given it 5 stars on Goodreads. I think I’ll give it 4 stars, mainly because it should have been shorter by 150 pages or so, but I understand that most readers nowadays like a big chunky book because they feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, publishers should just make slim volumes cheaper.

4 thoughts on “The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

  1. This is a very good review, Katrina. It made me curious about the book and if I would enjoy it, even though it is so long. I can easily imagine that it is the type of book to get divide reviews. I do have a copy and must have had it for years. It is in a box somewhere, if it turns up again I will give it a go.

    • tracybham,
      There’s a lot more to the book than I’ve written about. I think it was supposed to be a comment on American life, greed and selfishness, but I’m sure it works for modern life just about anywhere in the west. I hope you enjoy it when you get around to reading it.

  2. Thanks for this Katrina. I read it around the time it came out, and I really enjoyed it. I think your comment that “it’s such a well observed book as far as people and families are concerned” is part of the reason. Also, I’ve lived in the USA a couple of times (2 years in the 80s, and 3 years in the 90s) so I lapped up novels about contemporary American lives. I’ve read less of them now but back then I was reading quite a lot. I think Franzen is good. I also read his Freedom, but it has stuck a bit less than this one! (These days a book that long would put me off. I agree that paperbacks that size are tricky to read.)

    • Whispering Gums,
      I think that reading books that are set in the US is enough for me, I prefer it from a distance! I’ve lived most of my life in Scotland apart from the south of England for a few years in the late 70s early 80s and didn’t like that much, it was the beginning of the Thatcher years. I’ll probably read more by Franzen eventually, and hope they aren’t all so long!

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