Jonathan Franzen is really good at creating vivid characters and letting you inside their minds for a while. They're not always pleasant characters, mind you. But they are vivid. There's a little something in the characterization that reminds me of the secondary characters in Dickens - that slightly larger than life aspect that makes them indelible.
On the other hand, there's a bit of a bleakness to Franzen's writing that means that while I enjoyed this book, it's hard to say that I loved it, exactly. There was never a moment when I was hesitant to pick it up, bu once I was done, I felt slightly dissatisfied.
That might be fitting, because this is a story of people who are fundamentally dissatisfied and don't know why. They've done everything right, they think. Or even if they've done things wrong, they've done them the correct, counter-cultural way that shows how little bourgeois morality means. Although, even as I say that, I'm not sure that's applicable to this whole family, and maybe that's a strength of the book, that people's motivations aren't so easily made into a binary.
Alfred and Enid are the parents in this scenario. They live in the Midwest. Alfred was a railroad engineer who left his job when two companies were merging. He could have held on a little longer and benefited, but did not. His wife has never forgiven him. We are told that he was an angry, loud husband and father, but in the book as we know him, for the most part, he is withdrawn, suffering from Parkinson's and dementia. It isn't so much that he's in denial as that he lacks the ability to express himself to others.
Enid has tried to do everything right in her life, and measures her own life by the physical surroundings of others. It means that she disapproves of her daughter who is divorced, and a successful chef, for neither giving her the grandchildren nor the stable copy of herself she wanted. She loves but deliberately misunderstands the life of her son Chip, believing he left his professorship voluntarily to work for the Wall Street Journal. (He was fired for sleeping with a student - well, writing a paper for her, but doing so in the course of a weekend of sex - and works for a small independent, probably non-paying, indie paper, while writing a diatribe of a screenplay about the evil manipulating student and his ex-wife.
The one child who shares Enid's values, Gary, lives in an angry detente with his wife, with their children as pawns in the middle, while he struggles with depression and a looming sense that he should be getting more reward for his choices, and a general sense of anger at the world for not being what he thought it would be. He thinks his parents belong in a nursing home - partly because they are having difficulty, but more because that means, he thinks, that they'll be less of an inconvenience to him.
Everyone's a bit of an asshole in this book. No one has the moral high ground. However, a couple of characters at least find equilibrium, and one is able to see his past as a comedy rather than a tragedy aimed at his own head, which seems a little like growing the fuck up?
This is not a plot heavy book. It's definitely one you read for the characters. And if I found it a little too hopeless to make me love it, it came about as close as you can without some leavening.