Reviewed by Ingrid
It's about: "There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds." The first section of this book describes the Patty and Walter Berglund family from their neighbors' point of view. Patty is a typical suburban mother, loves to make cookies, generally agreeable, enjoys to gossip but obstinately refuses to take any side. "A game could be made of trying to get Patty to agree that somebody's behavior was 'bad.' When she was told that Seth and Merrie Paulsen were throwing a big Halloween party for their twins and had deliberately invited every child on the block except Connie Monaghan, Patty would only say that this was very 'wierd.' The next time she saw the Paulsens in the street, they explained that they had tried all summer to get Connie Monaghan's mother, Carol, to stop flicking cigarette butts from her bedroom window down into their twins' little wading pool."
Carol Monaghan and her daughter Connie also live next door to the Berglunds. Carol "was the only non-gentrifier left on the block. She smoked Parliaments, bleached her hair, made lurid talons of her nails, fed her daughter heavily processed foods, and came home very late on Thursday nights." When Carol gets a new boyfriend, Blake, who drives an F-250 with a bumper sticker that says I'm white and I vote, blares anthem rock, and decides to build a terribly ugly "great room" on the back of Carol's house, Patty starts to get just a little irritated. It doesn't help when her son Joey (obviously Patty's favorite child, the one she "can't shut up about",) moves in next door to live with Connie, who he started sleeping with at a very young age. It's quite obvious to the neighbors at this point that Patty is starting to come apart.
After this little snapshot, the rest of the book gives us the whole story, with all the grimy and delicious details. The next section is an "autobiography" by Patty entitled "MISTAKES WERE MADE," in which she explains how she and Walter met and eventually got married. Subsequent sections are from the points of view of Walter's college roommate Richard Katz, Patty's son Joey, and Walter himself.
I thought: Loved it. I loved how each of the characters act like us, talk just like us, listen to the same music we do, read the same books we do, and have the same crazy political beliefs that (some of us) do. What is particularly striking about this book is that pretty much anyone can tell right away that it's "good." The writing is deliciously clever, the story is entrancing, all the little elements connect up in just the right ways, there's symbolism and foreshadowing, literary allusions, names have meaning, etc etc. I don't know what else to say. To tell you the truth, it was surprisingly difficult to write this review. I feel a lot of pressure here. Overall this book was an absolute delight to read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone that just wants an overall awesome book, and that's pretty much all I can say!
Verdict: On the shelf.
Warnings: LOTS of very descriptive sex. Swear words. A disturbing incident involving human excrement. Drug use. Etc, etc.
"Walter had come to prefer the anxiety of being her passenger to the judgmental anger that consumed him when he was at the wheel--the seemingly inescapable sense that, of all the drivers on the road, only he was traveling at exactly the right speed, only he was striking an appropriate balance between too punctiliously obeying traffic rules and too dangerously flouting them. In the last two years, he'd spent a lot of angry hours on the roads of West Virfinia, tailgating the idiotic slowpokes and then slowing down himself to punish the rude tailgaters, ruthlessly defending the inner lane of interstates from assholes trying to pass him on the right, passing on the right himself when some fool or cellphone yakker or sanctimouious speed-limit enforcer clogged the inner lane, obsessively profiling and psychoanalyzing the drivers who refused to use their turn signals (almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity, the compromised state of which was already manifest in the compensatory gigantism of their pickups and SUVs) ..."
"A herd of male first-years burst out of the dorm and onto the lawn, their voices amplified by beer. 'Jo-eeee, Jo-eeee,' they lowed affectionately. He nodded to them in cool acknowledgement."
Interview with Franzen on Goodreads
The Complete Review list of notable reviews
"Smaller Than Life" review in the Atlantic (good points but ultimately I felt that the pop culture references made the book feel more "American" which seemed to me to be necessary.)
... and Mark Athikakis' very articulate response
Ron Charles' "hip" video review (very entertaining, and while I agree that some aspects of the novel were "in your face," I didn't find it as irritating or exaggerated as he he seemed to think. This review seemed to be responding more to the hype than the work itself, which is too bad.)
HTMLGIANT review (Seems to line up the most with my opinion of this book. Watch for language in this one.)
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