Novelist Franzen (The Corrections, 2001, etc.) displays his mastery of nonfiction in this compact, affecting memoir, which begins with the aftermath of his mother’s death and ends with a quiet epiphany about love.
Today’s many autobiographers could learn a lot from Franzen about focus and about the immense significance of the littlest things. He sees the relevance of almost everything—though it sometimes takes him decades. Rather than a traditional story beginning with birth and ending with the present, Franzen offers six segments that together form a rough chronology. Each could stand alone but gains great power from its juxtaposition with the others. When the author appears to be drifting away from the narrative, he is instead inviting us along on a detour that often turns out to be a shortcut to surprise through some troubled terrain. We meet and grow to care deeply for his conventional, sometimes procrustean parents and his older brothers in suburban Webster Groves, Mo. We squirm as he tells us about his geeky boyhood, compulsively reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and his awkward adolescence. An early section on Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl reveals its importance 100 pages later. We read about church camp and high-school pranks, including repeated attempts by Franzen and his friends to get an automobile tire over the school’s flagpole. We learn why he majored in German in college and why he greatly admired a professor almost everyone else despised. We see the enduring conflict between man and boy that rages within him even now. He relates painful, protracted tales of his sexual awakenings and rejections; he grieves about his failed marriage. He explores what he at first thinks is his odd affinity for birds. Only rarely does he talk specifically about his emergence as a writer, but it’s all there, right in front of you.
Quirky, funny, poignant, self-deprecating and ultimately wise.