September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

by Jonathan Franzen

It took eight years to write, but Franzen’s thick tome is worth the wait, and weight: This is a spellbinding novel of family dysfunction that is both funny and piercing. Pulitzer committee, perhaps you should consider taking the rest of the year off.

Plot takes a backseat to unforgettable characters in a family drama centered on Enid and Alfred Lambert, who are waiting out the ends of their lives in their midwestern home. Al, once the tyrant of the house, is now rendered helpless by Parkinson’s. Enid is hoping to gather their three children, who moved away long ago, back home for one last Christmas together before Al dies.

But the kids are sad sacks too. Firstborn Gary, tormented by a wife and two children who belittle him, staves off his depressing home life with cheerful thoughts like “The liquor cabinet is in the kitchen.”

Denise, the baby of the family, has been fired by a restaurant after sleeping with the owner’s wife. And her brother Chip is having an affair with a married woman so he can forget the tenured post he lost at a college after seducing a student. The novel’s brilliance is in the textures Franzen finds in each of the Lamberts as they teeter on the brink of falling apart and search for the “corrections” that will turn their lives around before it’s too late. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26)

Bottom Line: Family jewel

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