Franzen follows his widely acclaimed debut, The Twenty-seventh City (1988), with a potent saga of tentative love and environmental catastrophe that quakes and ultimately self-destructs, although it fragments into magnificent pieces in the process. The title, a technical term for ground shaking near the epicenter of an earthquake, comes into play as a series of shocks hits the coast north of Boston, the first of which supposedly kills young Louis Holland's crotchety grandmother. His family inherits millions as a result, but he has no access to it, even when he loses his job at a local radio station after a takeover by right- to-lifers. A bright patch in his otherwise bleak landscape is his girlfriend RenÇe Seichek, a principled seismologist working at Harvard who connects the seismic activity with secret long-term dumping of a major chemical company's toxic waste into a deep well drilled on its property. Louis and RenÇe split up when an old flame comes to visit him, however, and in her loneliness RenÇe discovers she's pregnant, leading to a showdown between her and the fundamentalists picketing her abortion clinic. When she's mysteriously shot and critically wounded immediately afterward, Louis nurses her to health even as a final quake causes widespread damage, utterly destroying the chemical plant in a moment of sweet if heavy-handed poetic justice. Unfortunately, the dichotomies between romance and science, abortion and the environment are unresolved, and the self-pity in Louis's nihilism as he rails against mother, father, sister, the world, and himself makes him a cold and distant protagonist. A brooding tale of personal responsibility and dangerous legacies that's ambitious and impressive but finally overreaches itself.
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