This is a novel that I loved when it first came out (when I was 21), and it has only grown in my estimation. The dumber parts feel less dumb (and mostly just more random), and the some of the parts I didn’t understand became sharper and clearer. It’s not too shocking that I decided to reread this book after both my mom and my mother-in-law were at their “Boomer Mom” worst this Christmas. My mom was uncharacteristically better behaved in general, but kids in their 30s causes white moms to lose their mind it seems.
The book is about a midwestern family, now all adults with lives in various states (and flavors) of disarray, along with some poignant and important looks into parts of their childhood that predicated it. In addition, we look at the parents themselves, a mother brought into self-delusion and near-violent compromise by an old man who’s never compromised on anything in his entire life, much to his own detriment.
We have a bank manager fighting off the realization that he’s severely depressed, much like the father he’s convinced is severely depressed. We have a morally compromised academic, whose teaching and scholarship seemed ok, up until he slept with and stalked an undergrad. We have a star chef who is having affairs with both of her financial backers (a married couple). And we have an older married couple on their way to a cruise in which the husband’s Parkinsons and dementia are reaching a crisis point, along with the mother’s depression of her own.
Also, it’s a comedy. I had forgotten, or maybe didn’t really know, how funny this book is. When Gary is stomping around his house looking for evidence that his wife lied about her back hurting trying to answer his mother’s insistent calls, convincing himself that’s it’s time for a drink, I was losing it. There’s a line “Gary looked for something undepressed to say” that had me howling. I realize people have some strong feelings about Jonathan Franzen, and I do to, which is that this book is a shambling perfect beast of a novel about American life.