All Enid Lambert wants is to have one last Christmas with her family round her. She and her husband Alfred are getting on a bit and the reality of their lives together has reached a point where the words ‘fractured’ and ‘awkward’ may be the best they can hope for. At times, the relationship appears almost irretrievable: with Enid’s need to have the whole world think everything’s fine while she struggles (still) to change her husband into the man she thought she’d married, and Alfred’s inability (in and out of the bedroom) to give his wife the level of intimacy he knows she wants.
Unsurprisingly, the lives of their three grown-up children are no less troubled, with each one facing his or her own series of mini-catastrophes as the book charts their lives over the years. While the timescale jumps around quite a bit, the narrative was easy to follow and I found myself drawn further and further into this family’s general need to make right its mistakes.
Given the history of Mr Franzen’s writing career in relation to this book (such as his infamous ‘feud’ with Oprah Winfrey), and his various derogatory comments about women readers, I can understand why so many people hate it – the characters are deeply flawed, miserable, whiny, vengeful and most of the time deeply, deeply irritating. And to be fair, any other book with so many annoying people in it would have ended up on my Did Not Finish pile, no trouble at all.
The modern obsession with what to do with our old folks is the central theme, and I have to say, I found the siblings’ approach to dealing with their parents by turns hilarious, painful and intensely moving. Jonathan Franzen writes about being human as if he knows exactly how I feel, and that’s not something that happens very often. He also uses big words, gets into technical jargon that occasionally lost me a little, and really, really likes long sentences – there were a few I thought might never end and I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if the book had turned out to be one long sentence. Nevertheless, the writing is superb, masterful and wonderfully real. If I could write like this guy, I’d be very happy indeed.