‘The Corrections’ is a cautionary tale worth revisiting

Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed novel is a reminder to appreciate family

Image by: Ben Wrixon
The novel is a self-aware triumph.

In the 20 years since its release, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen has garnered a reputation as a modern literary classic—and with time, its warnings not to take those we love for granted have become more relevant than ever. 

This 2001 novel by Franzen debuted to universal acclaim. It won the National Book Award and was also a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, among many other notable designations.

However, The Corrections also arrived with controversy after Franzen rudely rejected the support of media titan Oprah Winfrey. He feared her endorsement of his novel as part of her Book Club might repel male readers. 

Years later, Time magazine gave Franzen a contentious cover story in 2010 and touted him as the next “Great American Novelist” after releasing Freedom. The most recent decade has seen his opinionated elitism continue to upset people.

Controversies aside, Franzen is an undeniably gifted writer, and The Corrections is worthy of all its praise. It deserves its status as a classic. 

The novel tells the story of the Lamberts, a dysfunctional family driven apart by the realities of adult life and their shortcomings as people. 

Enid Lambert, wife to Alfred and mother to Chip, Gary, and Denise, is insistent on reuniting her children in their hometown of St. Jude for one last family Christmas. It might be their last chance to be together, given Alfred’s rapidly deteriorating health.

Franzen brings these characters to life over The Corrections’ roughly 600 pages, his prose consistently meticulous and inventive. 

Enid, caring to a fault, is the victim of a neglectful marriage and desperate to reconnect with her adult children. Her husband, Alfred, is a sickly and bitter father of three. He chose his work over everything else but failed to leave a legacy. 

The children’s stories are where The Corrections shines.

Chip’s situation is hardly original—a creative mind struggling to make ends meet—but it’s elevated by Franzen’s sharp wit and willingness to be bold. He dives headfirst into Chip’s worst impulses to uncover the goodness he’s kept hidden. 

Denise’s story is about expectations. She’s a hard-working chef, a career path never supported by her parents. She’s also conflicted about her sexuality. Franzen should be commended for exploring her life and psyche in harsh, believable ways. 

Gary, the oldest Lambert child, is perhaps the most interesting of the three. He’s grown to resent his father for mistreating his mother, yet finds his own marriage falling apart as he continues to lose battles against his depression. 

As the story progresses—and a family Christmas becomes a pipe dream—the Lamberts begin to understand the dangers of taking those they love for granted. Life only affords us so many opportunities to connect with loved ones. 

This is an over-arching message that resonates in COVID times—appreciating those we love while they’re here is essential. There’s never been a better time to bury the hatchet and reconnect with those who matter most. 

Now more than ever, families and friends need each other. The Corrections, for all its twisted humour and cynicism, is a cautionary tale about what life can become when people lose sight of what matters. 

Even if we can’t pick our family, we can choose to love them. 


Book review

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