Author of three previous novels, Jonathan Franzen has now produced an epic saga featuring people from different backgrounds who struggle mightily with complexities as the United States moves into the 21st century. Sadness and happiness accompany their confused interactions as they try to make sense of the rationality and emotionality of their muddled decisions. By not adhering strictly to chronology, Franzen complicates his readers’ perceptions of what is taking place. Also, at several points in the book, he uses the literary device of introducing an “autobiographer” who is actually one of his principal characters, thus adding another jumbled source of perplexity. Nevertheless, these approaches contribute to the reality base of the story during an era of considerable dissonance in American history. One other element of the presentation that should be mentioned is the frequency with which sexual intercourse scenes are vividly and explicitly described.
Patty Emerson grew up in a wealthy part of Westchester County, New York where her rich father, Ray, practiced law and her mother, Joyce, was a member of the State Assembly. Ray was “exceedingly Gentile” while Joyce “was born Joyce Markowitz in Brooklyn in 1934 but apparently disliked being Jewish.” They were married in the “All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.” Patty was the first of their four children.
A very tall girl, Patty was an outstanding basketball player. She decided to accept a full scholarship to play basketball at the University of Minnesota, wanting to get far away from her parents when they counseled her to keep quiet and avoid publicity after she was raped at the age of seventeen.
At Minnesota, Patty made second team all-American. She had one boy friend with whom she slept before meeting two recent graduates of Macalester, Walter Berglund from Hibbing, Minn. and Richard Katz, a musician with a Jewish father and a WASP mother, who came from a generally poor part of New York’s Westchester County. Attracted to both Walter and Richard, Patty finally married Walter and settled in St. Paul. The stories of what happened to this marriage and to Patty’s relationship with Richard occupy most of the book. These arduous experiences are presumably intended to reflect the contemporary scene.
Other story lines include the activities of Paddy and Walter’s son,
Joey, who supposedly began sleeping with Connie, the daughter of the Berglund’s neighbors, when he was eleven and she was twelve. The ups and downs of their subsequent relationship are sometimes difficult to follow. Joey’s attendance at the University of Virginia entails his having a Jewish roommate, Jonathan, and this produces still another series of interesting developments.
Walter’s significant involvement with the environmental movement is a separate plot replete with complications, sex, and tragedy. His determination to provide areas for birds to thrive makes for a final episode that will not appeal to cat lovers.
The snarled jumble of the many stories in this wide-ranging novel requires the reader’s attention although some will flag as its complexities pile on each other. Franzen has succeeded in portraying places, people, and times that are often confusing but that are intended to reflect present-day reality. Patient readers will be richly rewarded by an honestly critical depiction of many contemporary dilemmas, laced with humor. The book has obviously struck a responsive chord since it reached the top of the New York Times best-selling fiction list and Franzen appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The fine reputation that Franzen earned nine years ago with his widely-hailed novel, The Corrections, is now reinforced by this new contribution.
(Dr. Morton I. Teicher is the Founding Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)