The book is about a dysfunctional family from the imaginary town of St. Jude somewhere in the Midwest.
The story starts with the account of the parents, Enid and Alfred Lambert living their seemingly uneventful retired life. The lucid and life-loving Enid is concerned by her husband’s rapid downfall to dementia and Parkinson, trying in vain to interest him in life. Alfred who has always been emotionally unavailable to his wife, has worked for a Midwestern railroad company for decades, has made bad investment decisions due to his strict work ethics and loyalty to the company. Enid is ashamed that they have lost so many opportunities to be rich.
Then we hear about Chip, the middle child whose story shakes us up with its tragic and hilarious turns. Chip has taken a drug called “Mexican A” which makes its user incapable of feeling shame. The result of giving in to this magical drug is a 3 day long sexual relationship with his student, followed by his unemployment, and further failures. We learn all of these through flashback, while Chip is hiding a stolen salmon fillet in his jacket, hoping to cook a decent meal for his parents, who are stopping by his apartment on their way to a cruise trip. After getting dumped by his girlfriend on the same day, he meets the girlfriend’s husband, a Lithuanian politician and gets hired by him and flies out to Lithuania.
I am not going to give away all the other amazing plot twists of the novel, but they kept me awake at night. The writing is so smooth and amazing that all the bizarre events are totally believable. Characters are so real and dear that you feel like you have known them for ages. Franzen has done a fantastic job in writing Alfred’s paranoia and Enid’s relentless determination for a last family Christmas, making your heart overflow with love for them.
This is a very humane novel, in my opinion. Shame is the major affliction of the Lambert family, making Enid so judgmental and Alfred so angry. It is the reason for Denise’s crazy love experiments and Gary’s loneliness in his perfect family. And only through reunion and confessions of love and guilt to each-other, at least some of the Lamberts can find redemptions.
My brief rationalization doesn’t do justice to this beautiful book. Just read it if you like complex characters and intimate narrative.