Is there such a thing as a functional family? I’ve seen a few, but not many. I grew up in an first-generation Korean-American home, and it was rife with conflict. In addition to the usual generational-gap clashes that most families contend with, we also had to deal with the language gap and the culture gap.
I’m thirty-three and still live at home, and while the conflicts have mellowed out and become less frequent, the feelings of alienation from my parents are still uncomfortably present. As I’d hoped, I changed and matured as I got older. I thought this would make it easier to understand them, and it has, but I’d always expected that understanding them would make it easier for me to love them; to bear with them and be patient with them. It was and is frustrating to find that, despite understanding how difficult it was for my immigrant parents to run a business, raise three children, and stay married despite all the difficulties, I can’t seem to buck my bitterness and anger at them for certain injustices I’d suffered at their hands, including being saddled with the impossible hopes and expectations that every pair of immigrant parents has for their children.
It’s a sad and oddly comforting thing to discover that families with a bare minimum of such obstacles have to fight this frustration, too. That’s one of the overriding themes of The Corrections, and it’s perhaps why the book resonated so much with me.
The Lamberts seem like an American success story on the surface. Enid and Alfred are still married. Their eldest son, Gary, is a successful banker with a family. Chip was pursuing academia, but changed his career path to write for the Wall Street Journal. Denise is a renowned chef.
But underneath the facade, every family member is struggling. Alfred has Parkinson’s disease, and is slowly succumbing to dementia. Enid is in denial of Alfred’s condition. Gary is an alcoholic who is slowly losing his self-respect to a manipulative wife. Chip lost his professorship because of an affair with a student, and he’s writing unpaid contributions for the Warren Street Journal, not the Wall Street Journal. Denise lost her job as a chef when she slept with her boss — and he found out that she’d also been sleeping with his wife.
(WARNING for conservative readers — there are a few graphic sections that I had to skip.)
Enid is determined to get the entire family together for one last Christmas in St. Jude, their Midwestern hometown, and this brings to light their myriad struggles with one another as well as their personal struggles.
Chip feels guilty for being such a disappointment to his parents, and resents his father for setting his expectations too high. Gary resents his mother for demanding too much of him, even as he’s struggling with his marriage. Denise feels guilty for behaving in ways that she knows would shock her conservative parents, but, at the same time, feels restless and trapped by her parents’ notion that she is still their sweet, little girl.
As the eldest of three adult children, and the only one still living at home, I could identify a little with all of the Lambert children. Like Chip, I feel the need to protect my parents from my struggles, and sometimes resent them for adding the burden of their expectations to my burden of trying to keep my head above water. Like Gary, I’m bitter that my parents depend so much on me, but still fight me when I give them advice. Like Denise, I wish I could have been a better daughter, but I’m just not.
I was surprised to see that this book got so many negative reviews on Goodreads. One of the most common comments I saw was that none of the characters were likeable; they were all selfish and flawed. I had no idea that there were so many undamaged people out there.
For my part, I can identify with the characters mainly because they were selfish and flawed. In their selfishness, I see my own. In their bitterness and unwillingness to see their parents’ point of view, I see my own impatience with my parents. Every time they ask me to interpret an official letter from English, when they ask me to call customer service, when they ask to borrow my car, I have to fight my primal urge to tell them to they’re adults and should fend for themselves; after all, I had to figure all of this stuff out on my own.
But, sometimes, it’s easier to understand things if you remove yourself from the equation. And, in writing this book, Jonathan Franzen has given every child and every parent an opportunity to see from the opposite point of view; to see that it’s sometimes worth risking disappointment to preserve intimacy; that it’s worth swallowing pride to get the help you need; that just because love is silent doesn’t mean it’s not there.
It’s helped me to understand that, while my love for my parents is flawed, it’s still love. I can either focus on the flaws until I’ve destroyed it or focus on the foundation of love that is there and work, however slowly, towards healing.