Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Man Who Loved Children (by Christina Stead)

This book, the story of a bitterly unhappy family (unhappy in their own way, as Tolstoy would say) was a bit of a slog for me to get through, since it's over 500 pages long. It's also pretty relentless: the main characters are aggressively realistic and aggressively hateful and aggressively unsympathetic. Henny, the wife, goes on vicious tirade after vicious tirade. Sam, the husband, talks in a super-irritating baby talk to all of his kids, and just basically does all he can to annoy and undermine them. There's very little in the way of any kind of respect or compassion. So it's not a world that you necessarily enjoy being in, for all those pages. And my first thought on finishing it was that it would be better if it were 100 pages shorter.

I liked it more when I was done than while I was reading it, partly because the last 80 or so pages are really the best part of the book. Then I went back and read the introduction by Randal Jarrell, who acknowledges that the book's main flaw is that there's too much in it, but also concedes that novels, by definition, are flawed works---and that the specificity of the Pollit family with all its flaws makes the novel a true masterpiece.

There's a Jonathan Franzen blurb on the cover, and I can see why---The Corrections is also a big, overstuffed novel about a fairly unsympathetic family. I loved The Corrections, though, and I didn't love The Man Who Loved Children. I can appreciate those who appreciate it, but I wouldn't want to live through it again.

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