Book: The Corrections

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The Corrections

Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux

Enid Lambert is terribly, terribly anxious. Although she would never admit it to her neighbors or her three grown children, her husband, Alfred, is losing his grip on reality. Maybe it’s the medication that Alfred takes for his Parkinson’s disease, or maybe it’s his negative attitude, but he spends his days brooding in the basement and committing shadowy, unspeakable acts. More and more often, he doesn’t seem to understand a word Enid says.

Trouble is also brewing in the lives of Enid’s children. Her older son, Gary, a banker in Philadelphia, has turned cruel and materialistic and is trying to force his parents out of their old house and into a tiny apartment. The middle child, Chip, has suddenly and for no good reason quit his exciting job as a professor at D—— College and moved to New York City, where he seems to be pursuing a “transgressive” lifestyle and writing some sort of screenplay. Meanwhile the baby of the family, Denise, has escaped her disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man—or so Gary hints.

Enid, who loves to have fun, can still look forward to a final family Christmas and to the ten-day Nordic Pleasurelines Luxury Fall Color Cruise that she and Alfred are about to embark on. But even these few remaining joys are threatened by her husband’s growing confusion and unsteadiness. As Alfred enters his final decline, the Lamberts must face the failures, secrets, and long-buried hurts that haunt them as a family if they are to make the corrections that each desperately needs.


Jonathan Franzen’s exhilarating novel The Corrections tells a spellbinding story with sexy comic brio, and evokes a quirky family akin to Anne Tyler’s, only bitter. Franzen’s great at describing Christmas homecomings gone awry, cruise-ship follies, self-deluded academics, breast-obsessed screenwriters, stodgy old farts and edgy Tribeca bohemians equally at sea in their lives, and the mad, bad, dangerous worlds of the Internet boom and the fissioning post-Soviet East.

All five members of the Lambert family get their due, as everybody’s lives swirl out of control. Paterfamilias Alfred is slipping into dementia, even as one of his inventions inspires a pharmaceutical giant to revolutionize treatment of his disease. His stubborn wife, Enid, specializes in denial; so do their kids, each in an idiosyncratic way. Their hepcat son, Chip, lost a college sinecure by seducing a student, and his new career as a screenwriter is in peril. Chip’s sister, Denise, is a chic chef perpetually in hot water, romantically speaking; banker brother Gary wonders if his stifling marriage is driving him nuts. We inhabit these troubled minds in turn, sinking into sorrow punctuated by laughter, reveling in Franzen’s satirical eye:

Gary in recent years had observed, with plate tectonically cumulative anxiety, that population was continuing to flow out of the Midwest and toward the cooler coasts…. Gary wished that all further migration [could] be banned and all Midwesterners encouraged to revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity.

Franzen is funny and on the money. This book puts him on the literary map. —Tim Appelo

Critically lauded and an Oprah Book Club choice, Jonathan Franzen’s third novel The Corrections is already a huge success in the US, and it’s none too difficult to see why. Whereas his earlier novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and StrongMotion could be seen as single-issue works (on inner city decay and abortion respectively), the long-awaited The Corrections is far more grandiose in its ambition and its scale.

Framed by matriarch Enid Lambert’s attempts to gather her three grown children back home for Christmas, The Corrections examines their lives: Enid’s husband Alfred, sinking into dementia, her sons banker Gary and writer Chip (now in Lithuania) and daughter Denise, a chef, busily re-evaluating her sexual identity.

With these characters, Franzen gives himself plenty of room to examine the foibles, fears, hopes, anxieties and neuroses of 21st-century American life and the mad Lithuanian subplot provides some real laughs. But most striking and surprising about The Corrections is its reassuring normality. Despite all its well-signposted dysfunction, this remains at heart a big sprawling family saga, with all the security that implies. The book closes with Enid noting “that current events in general were more muted or insipid nowadays than they’d been in her youth” during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Now, “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States”. It’s a line Franzen couldn’t have written after 11 September, 2001—and, perhaps because of its now forgotten confidence, The Corrections is a book that readers will take to their hearts. —Alan Stewart

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Novels dealing with domestic crises and familial dysfunction are part of a long and honorable tradition. (As Tolstoy said in 1877, “All happy families

are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) Jonathan Franzen, gifted author of The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, now claims a place in that tradition with The Corrections, his funny, desolating, unsparing account of a divided, deeply unhappy American family.

At times evocative of two classic portraits of domestic and spiritual malaise, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, The Corrections ultimately stands squarely on its own. The narrative focuses on three critical months in the history of the Lambert family, longtime residents of the fictional midwestern city of St. Jude. Albert, the patriarch, is a once-formidable figure whose frequent rages and implacable rectitude have dominated life in the Lambert household for nearly 50 years. As the novel begins, Albert had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Against the perfectly articulated background of his physical and mental deterioration, Enid—Albert’s long-suffering, perpetually dissatisfied wife—develops a single, overriding obsession: to see her scattered family return to St. Jude for one last Christmas together.

The bulk of the story depicts the disordered lives of the three departed Lambert children: Gary, a grasping, increasingly unhappy investment banker with family troubles of his own; Chip, a former professor and failed screenwriter who drifts into a dangerous, highly illegal investment scam in economically depressed Lithuania; and Denise, a gifted chef lost in a maze of sexual confusion and “moral chaos.” In time, and by various circuitous routes, all three will find their way to that climactic Christmas in St. Jude, and to a final confrontation with the ghosts of the past, a confrontation that is painful, tragic, and liberating, all at once.

Supremely intelligent and deeply affecting, The Corrections anatomizes both a family and a society, gracefully illuminating the inner lives of a handful of characters struggling to escape “the givens of the self,” and to find and apply “the corrections” that will transform and redeem their lives. Through a combination of wit, empathy, and precise observation, Franzen himself transforms the familiar materials of domestic drama into something luminous and new, giving us a powerful, often beautiful novel of clear—and possibly enduring—significance. (Bill Sheehan)

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