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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Strong Motion

Jonathan Franzen

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To purchase Strong Motion

Title: Strong Motion
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992
Length: 508 pages
Availability: Strong Motion - US
Strong Motion - UK
Strong Motion - Canada
Schweres Beben - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

A- : big, broad fiction, coming together in a fairly good story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B 14/2/1992 L.S. Klepp
FAZ . 6/8/2005 .
The Guardian D 24/5/2003 David Jays
The LA Times B+ 2/2/1992 Richard Eder
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 23/7/2005 Angela Schader
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/2/1992 Josh Rubins
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/1/1992 Michael Singer
TLS . 6/6/2003 Stephen Burn
The Washington Post C 12/1/1992 Jonathan Yardley

  From the Reviews:
  • "Franzen, however, finally succumbs to the American novelist's most irresistible temptation and mounts a pulpit. (...) His subtlety abandons him just when he needs it most; venturing outside his familiar liberal upper-middle-class territory, he finds mainly gargoyles and automatons and sounds not so much socially concerned as petulant. Yet with all its faults, geological and otherwise, Strong Motion does tend to rattle complacency, even its own." - L.S. Klepp, Entertainment Weekly

  • "In Schweres Beben erweist sich Franzen als Moralapostel, der zwar das gute Gewissen, aber nicht die Wahrheit auf seiner Seite hat." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Franzen believes the original cover contributed to the failure of his difficult second novel in 1992; even with a new one, this account of earthquakes and unhappy families is a cumbersome read." - David Jays, The Guardian

  • "Franzen writes beautifully for the most part, though sometimes to excess. (...) (W)e are often at sea. We don't know what they are up to or what they will do next. Yet this is Franzen's way of bringing us to them. We experience them as we experience people in real life. No one seems to be in charge, and that can make for hard going." - Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times

  • "With the tighter concentration on one family, Strong Motion seems narrower than The Twenty-Seventh City" - Stephen Burn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Franzen has courage. But what Strong Motion demonstrates is that courage is not enough. However laudable Franzen's intentions, and however strong his narrative gifts, he has not been able to transform them into a convincing novel. (...) Jonathan Franzen is a writer of abundant energies and not-inconsiderable gifts, but he has turned them here to trivial purpose: a tired anti-American screed masquerading as a novel." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A lot of things get shaken up in Strong Motion. Earthquakes figure prominently. The seismic shifts mostly aren't of the apocalyptic variety; instead, one finds the unsettling tremors that don't seem to do much damage but nevertheless also bring consequences with them. And, yes, the lives portrayed in the book mirror nature, their inner lives as shaken as their physical forms are.
       Much of the book centers around the Holland family: siblings Louis and Eileen, mother Melanie, father Bob. It is a perhaps typically American dysfunctional family. Money-obsessed Melanie gives in to Eileen and alienates Louis, causing friction and raised voices. Bob, a professor from another time (60s Marxist, with a touch of hippie), doesn't get too involved. Eileen and Louis have an uneasy relationship, marked by sibling jealousies and guilt, neither well-informed about (or much interested in) the life of the other.
       Eileen and Louis both wind up at some distance from their Midwestern roots, in Boston: Eileen is getting an MBA, while Louis toils for a small radio station. Eileen has a boyfriend, Peter, whose father is an executive for Sweeting-Aldren-- a company that plays a prominent part in the book as well.
       The Hollands are brought back together on the East Coast by an earthquake. It is a minor one, but there is one fatality near Boston: a relative who stood between Melanie and a huge inheritance (possibly over twenty million dollars) -- riches that, incidentally, came from a Sweeting-Aldren investment.
       At the earthquake site Louis meets a Harvard seismologist, Renée. They fall in love.
       Complications arise, and the earth continues to shake in the Boston area. The quakes are minor, causing little damage. They are also unexpected, and while earthquakes are generally unexpected these are particularly so: there are no good explanations why here and why now. Renée has a theory about the origins of the earthquakes, and as she looks into it it seems ever more plausible. Apparently Sweeting-Aldren may have something to do with it.
       Melanie is worried about her investment, the company isn't pleased by people nosing around, and most evidence has been well covered up. Other complications arise. Louis' radio station is sold -- to an anti-abortion campaigner who has moved to Boston and settled his flock in a building that likely won't stand even a small tremor. There is another woman in Louis' life, from his college days in Texas, who won't entirely go away. There are seismologists and theories.

       Strong Motion shudders along. There are digressions galore -- on business, the changing face of settled Massachusetts, abortion, waste disposal, consumerism, and much else. Some are major, some are minor. Some are relevant, some are just little (or big) show-pieces for Franzen to strut his stuff. Few are really well integrated into the flow of the story.
       Characters suddenly come to the fore (as does, at one point, a raccoon), and Franzen delves deep into their pasts and presents, only to leave them somewhere on the side of the narrative again.
       Franzen seems to go to great pains not to allow the story to move forward smoothly, building on itself -- at least not until he gets fairly deep into the book, where he fortunately can't stop himself and, despite throwing a few spanners into the works, gets a fair amount of momentum going. Strong Motion eventually works itself up into a strong and fast-paced story, one that easily holds the readers interest. It takes a while to get there, but the pay-off isn't bad.
       Much remains unsatisfying, including the odd love story of Louis and Renée. While it comes together quite well at the end, there are some bumps and hitches along the way that suggest that these characters have much deeper issues than the ones Franzen gets at. Their approach to love isn't, for much of the book, very convincing -- but Franzen gets away with it because of his poignant conclusion.
       Other characters are too cartoonish: types (money obsessed Mom, the seismologists, the preacher-man, etc.) rather than people. But Franzen presents his cartoons entertainingly enough.
       He tells his stories well: the digressions may be pointless (or rather: trying too hard to make a peripheral point), but they are nice set pieces. And the story is interesting enough -- as, indeed, many of the asides are too.

       Somewhat clunky, trying to do far too much -- and say far too much about things like American business and consumerism and the question of abortion -- Strong Motion is a good, solid read. A bit less ambition (but just a bit), a bit tighter focus, and a less roundabout approach would have helped. Still: worthwhile.

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Strong Motion: Reviews: Jonathan Franzen: Other books by Jonathan Franzen under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959.

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