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After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson's disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man-or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
All five members of the Lambert family get their due, as everybody's lives swirl out of control. Paterfamilias Alfred is slipping into dementia, even as one of his inventions inspires a pharmaceutical giant to revolutionize treatment of his disease. His stubborn wife, Enid, specializes in denial; so do their kids, each in an idiosyncratic way. Their hepcat son, Chip, lost a college sinecure by seducing a student, and his new career as a screenwriter is in peril. Chip's sister, Denise, is a chic chef perpetually in hot water, romantically speaking; banker brother Gary wonders if his stifling marriage is driving him nuts. We inhabit these troubled minds in turn, sinking into sorrow punctuated by laughter, reveling in Franzen's satirical eye:
Gary in recent years had observed, with plate tectonically cumulative anxiety, that population was continuing to flow out of the Midwest and toward the cooler coasts.... Gary wished that all further migration [could] be banned and all Midwesterners encouraged to revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity.Franzen is funny and on the money. This book puts him on the literary map. --Tim Appelo
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