Farrar. Oct. 2021. 592p. ISBN 9780374181178. $30. F
Written between 1960 and 1990, John Updike’s “Rabbit” series reflected on the fluidity of U.S. culture and the puncturing of American exceptionalism. Similarly, Franzen introduces the Hildebrandts, a Chicago family struggling to navigate cultural revolution and the Vietnam War, in the first volume of a trilogy that will trace generations of this family up to the 21st century. Though the story centers on Russ, a depressed assistant pastor dwelling on his perceived humiliation by a colleague, the narrative constellates among his wife Marion, burdened by traumatic past, and their three children: college-age Clem, popular high schooler Becky, and brilliant but troubled Perry. Each member of the family struggles with a nagging sense of emptiness and searches for an authentic sense of self through adultery, drugs, religion, or war. As in The Corrections, Franzen pens complex, densely layered characters with backstories that require the narrative to jump backward and forward in time, with America’s heartland functioning as a stage upon which the tension between enduring values and societal change is enacted.
VERDICT Much like Updike, Franzen is keenly aware that human struggle is defined by understanding and acceptance and that it is generational, ideas he admirably captures here.
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