Jonathan Franzen

First Sentence: The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally -he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now- but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.

The Berglund family unit is the main focus of this novel. It is almost a Revolutionary Road for modern times. Walter, his wife Patty and their two children, Jessica and Joey are living the suburban dream. Or so it seems at the beginning of the book when we are given a brief introduction to the Berglunds by their neighbours. The second part of the book focuses on Patty and is presented as a journal she wrote (composed at her therapist’s suggestion) entitled “Mistakes Were Made”. After learning about Patty’s early life we are then brought up to 2004 where we watch the Berglund’s lives begin to crumble before our eyes. Richard Katz, Walter’s college room-mate and now alt-country hero, and Lalitha, Walter’s attractive assistant, are both catalysts for the inevitable demise of the Berglund family unit. I did enjoy this novel but I do not believe that it deserved the hype it received on publication. Definitely a clarion call for our times and, in particular, for modern America, but ultimately a little overlong and sometimes bloated. I’d rather re-read Revolutionary Road. Again.

* * *

Last Sentence: To this day, free access to the preserve is granted only to birds and to residents of Canterbridge Estates, through a gate whose lock combination is known to them, beneath a small ceramic sign with a picture of the pretty young dark-skinned girl after whom the preserve is named.

One of Walter Berglund’s preoccupations is overpopulation:

…the sprawl, the sprawl, the sprawl. Low-density development is the worst. And SUVs everywhere, snowmobiles everywhere, Jet skis everywhere, ATVs everywhere, two-acre lawns everywhere. The god-damned green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns.

Another is the cerulean warbler, which he and Lalitha are doing their best to save from extinction. In the end, after Patty’s affair with Richard is exposed and, Lalitha, who Walter had been sleeping with, dies in a car crash, Walter moves to Canterbridge Estates on his own, where his neighbours believe he is killing the neighbourhood cats in order to protect his beloved birds. The book ends with him setting up the Lalitha preserve mentioned in the final sentence above. For all this novels big themes of personal freedom and liberty, not to mention the environmental and economic problems peppered throughout the book, it is the human aspect which was most engaging for me. To see the slow death of a marriage was painful to observe and some of those passages were heartbreakingly realistic. Particularly when Richard Katz leaves Patty’s journal out for Walter to find, resulting in him finding out about their affair, and the argument that follows. When Walter tells Patty “I just want to be alone so I can contemplate having wasted my entire life loving you.”, it really does get to you. For me these scenes were the most rewarding, and had the book been trimmed down a little it could have been unforgettable. Still though, it was worth a read.

Random quote about modern life:

“All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”


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