2.5 / 5
"Sometimes when people asked Eileen Holland if she had any brothers or sisters, she had to think for a moment."
Louis Holland arrives in Boston to find that a minor earthquake in Ipswich has killed his eccentric grandmother, triggering a struggle between him, his sister Eileen, and his mother Melanie over the disposition of a $22 million inheritance. During a visit to the beach, Louis meets Dr. Reneé Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist who believes she has discovered the cause of subsequent earthquakes in Peabody. Louis, Reneé, and the Hollands' affairs become entangled with the petrochemical and weapons company Sweeting-Aldren, as well as a pro-life activist commune called the Church of Action in Christ, headed by Reverend Philip Stites...
I don’t know why I stuck with this book. It was frustrating in so many ways. But I picked it up at the wonderful Autumn Leaves bookstore up in Ithaca, NY back when I lived there from 2004-2005. I believe it was right around the time I was reading The Corrections, and I figured I might like other Franzen work, as well. This was one of his first publications, and it definitely shows. Every time I read a Franzen book, I not sure whether or not I enjoy it. It’s very odd. I suppose I do ENJOY them to a certain extent, or I wouldn’t read them, but I am not sure whether I like him as an author. I don’t recall much of The Corrections, frankly. Freedom stuck with me much better. But I feel sometimes as if he is a not-so-good John Irving. I may get totally torn down for that, but it’s kind of how I feel. He writes these familial epics which have a ton of promise, but end up falling flat, for me.
In any case, what frustrated me about this book is that Franzen writes well but then shoots himself in the foot but clearly writing like an MFA student who is trying to hard. The section about cars being like mismatched shoes, shuffling around the street? It was painful, honestly. But then he writes gems like: “It was if, in nuclear terms, the configuration of forces had changed and he was no longer an oppositely charged particle attracted to her from a great distance but a particle with like charge, a proton repelled by this other person until they were right next to each other and the strong nuclear force came into its own and bound them together.” I don’t know why, but that struck me. I loved it. Sure, maybe it’s also young-author-trying-too-hard material, and on the wordy side. But it works so well. So I think I kept reading the book because of small jewels like that.
Another frustrating aspect was how confounded I was by the actions of his characters. And he didn’t do this purposefully; they weren’t supposed to be crazy, just normal people. But they constantly reacted in ways I didn’t understand. I kept feeling like I’d missed something. I read books to learn about, get inside, understand other people.I couldn’t do that with this book. I found most of the characters’ actions perplexing in many cases. Someone would suddenly start yelling or acting sullen, and I couldn’t see the impetus. It left me vaguely upset. Like I said, it wasn’t that they were intentionally hard to predict characters. It felt more like Franzen didn’t understand the human psyche as he was writing.
(I’ll admit, my impressions of Franzen may currently be a bit colored by his Iraqi adoption scheme, as well. But I thought this way about the book even before I had heard about that odd little faux pas.)
In any case, I have to admit, the book was worth reading (slogging through?) if only for the ending! When the earthquake hit and things started really getting in motion (and storylines began falling into place - and people began acting in more realistic ways!), I couldn’t put it down.
Yet I waffle on whether to recommend this book. I did love the scenes of early-90s Boston, and some of the messages (women's rights, and an interestingly prescient outlook on the equivalent of fracking) from the book. But I can’t 100% recommend someone spend 500 pages on it. Even if the ending really makes it worth it.
P.S. I began reading this book in April (!) because it was a Franzen book I hadn’t read and we would be seeing him speak at BEA. Well...then I got sidetracked for quite a while from it! And while I tried to read a bit every few days, I didn’t end up being able to pick it up again to focus on until last week. It’s a little weird to think that I’ve technically been reading this book for almost 6 months! Haha.
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