This novel set in the early seventies is an epic character study of the Hildebrandt family and their individual confrontation with the moral dilemma of how to be a good person.
Franzen is highly skilled in dropping the reader into the point of view of each of the family member. We begin with the father Russ, an assistant minister, a weasel of a man, weak and highly unlikeable as he navigates his way out of a long marriage for the lust of a young widow, Frances who cares little for him. Russ takes no responsibility for his moral dilemmas believing it is everyone else’s fault, in particular his wife, Marion.
About Marion, Russ says, “if she hadn’t been so supportive of his failings, he might have made peace long ago. Frances had restored him to his courage, his edge, by believing he was capable of more.”
Learning what’s behind Marion’s self-loathing and remoteness, she deserves our pity which serves to enhance the reader’s disgust towards Russ. Her support has elevated him in the community and within the family despite hiding a traumatic secret of who she truly is. And we wonder at her power to be someone she’s not for so long.
The oldest son, Clem sees his father for what he is. Away at college he is naively drawn into his first relationship with a woman who is not his younger sister, Bec. He seems too innocent to be true but confronts a dilemma about studying instead of fighting in the Vietnam war.
His younger sister, Bec, a typical teenager, cool and beautiful, looks for guidance not from her self-absorbed parents but from hip youth leader Ambrose, Russ’s arch enemy. The younger son, Perry is the one who most needs help who finds solace only through drugs.
This is a curious family with an underlying belief in God as an excuse for their behaviour yet the older children have been allowed to neglect their religion practice. Russ, out of all the characters, is the one deeply flawed character I disliked the most which of course makes him the most interesting.
Marian despite our sympathies about her earlier life, cruelly dumps what she believes is a hereditary mental health problem onto fifteen-year-old Perry who is the most ill-equipped to be able to handle it. He is the character, I felt most sorry for. Severely let down by his parents, the only shining light is his sister who tries inadequately to help until she was drawn into her own problems. The only mature one, out of them all was eight-year-old Judson who is a delight.
Finding God is a vehicle of action and a solution for each of the characters woes, which is probably something that might be true for many people.
‘Dear God, she prayed, if this is the final test, I accept the test. If my time has come, I’ll die rejoicing in you… If it’s your will that I live, I promise I will always serve you.’
This indeed is a dysfunctional family and Franzen portrays them and the small town they live in, beautifully. Strong themes of religion run through it, quite heavily at times, as well as current issues of the Vietnam war, drugs and mental health.
This is a very lengthy novel, beautifully written but overly long with dumps of religious messaging which was too laboured for me. Yet, the characters are what kept me completely compelled. Give it a go.