by Jonathan Franzen
This is a hugely ambitious novel which aims to examine contemporary American culture through a "typical" middle-class family - the Lamberts. It is split into four sections, each section narrated by a family member, a helpful device as it gives the reader the family dynamics from different perspectives.
Briefly, the main protagonists are: Gary, eldest son, wife and two kids, businessman, difficult marriage, suffering from depression; Chip, middle child, college teacher, affair with student, involved in financial scam with some dodgy Lithuanians (mmm?); Denise, successful restaurateur, having affair with married man (and his wife!), and Enid and Alfred, the parents.
The tale unfolds as Enid is trying to gather the family together for Christmas. She fears it may be their last chance to all get together as she is painfully aware of Alfred's rapid decline into dementia through Parkinson's disease.
This book sets the reader on a roller-coaster of emotions. The complexities of family life described will make everyone who reads it recognise something of their own family - resentment, jealousy, rivalry, martyrdom and pure love - and perhaps question why it all has to be so complicated. The treatment of the father's illness is particularly skilful. Franzen's handling of this makes one believe that he must have first-hand knowledge - there are some almost unbearably poignant moments.
Frantzen writes beautifully about the ways the banal and the profound are both essential elements of the pattern of everyday life. And, in this microcosm of contemporary American society, where belief systems are disintegrating and everything is reduced to its market worth, he confirms the inherent value of humanity and personal relationships.
As I said at the beginning, this novel is hugely ambitious and at times one does have to suspend belief. The narrative is sometimes ludicrous and the denouement may be a disappointment to some, but it's written with such verve and skill that it will make you laugh out loud and cry.