Strong Motion

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Earthquakes are rare in Massachusetts, which is all the more reason the citizens are unnerved by a whole series of tremblers of less than 5.0 magnitude on the Richter Scale. These quakes change people’s lives the way war changed lives in Leo Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE and Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND.

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Franzen’s story focuses on twenty-three-year-old Louis Holland and thirty-year-old Renee Seitchek, who deduce that the earthquakes are not acts of God but are being created by the illegal pumping of hazardous waste materials deep underground via an abandoned oil well. The irony of the situation is that Louis’ mother has just inherited an estate valued at $22 million from her mother, who was knocked off a barstool by a quake while she was trying to reach a whiskey bottle, and most of the estate is in shares of stock in the company apparently responsible for the tremblers.

If Louis exposes the company, the stock may become worthless, and he will remain as poor as he has been all his life. Yet he is perversely delighted to assist Renee, a Harvard seismologist, with her investigation. Unknown to Louis, she has been promised a big reward if she can advise his mother whether to dump the chemical company’s stock. Renee is threatened by company representatives and finally shot in the back; nothing, however, can discourage her scientific zeal in pursuit of the truth.

Eventually the company is exposed as the cause of the earthquakes and goes bankrupt, but not before Louis’ mother has saved her inheritance by selling out. She presents Renee with a reward of $600,000; Renee, however, unwilling to profit from what she considers tainted money, burns the check in an ashtray.

Throughout the book, the hero and heroine have a stormy relationship complicated by Louis’ infatuation with a younger woman; in the end, it looks as if Renee and Louis will remain together and might even be so radical as to get married.

Jonathan Franzen caused a minor literary sensation in 1988 with his first novel, THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY. Critics were amazed that a writer still in his twenties could display intelligence, creativity, and craftsmanship reminiscent of the young F. Scott Fitzgerald. In STRONG MOTION, Franzen demonstrates that he can handle that hardest of all literary forms, the “second novel.” The only thing that betrays his youth and inexperience is the quixotic and exasperating idealism of his two protagonists.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, December 1, 1991, p. 677.

Boston Globe. January 17, 1992, p. 79.

Chicago Tribune. January 12, 1992, XIV, p. 7.

Library Journal. CXVI, November 15, 1991, p. 107.

Locus. XXVIII, March, 1992, p. 57.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 2, 1992, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 16, 1992, p. 13.

Newsweek. CXIX, January 20, 1992, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, December 6, 1991, p. 53.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, January 12, 1992, p. 3.

Strong Motion

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Earthquakes are rare in New England, which is all the more reason that people of Massachusetts are alarmed over a series of seismic disturbances registering around 4.5 on the Richter scale. The temblors are the “strong motion” of the novel’s title. They change people’s lives the way war changed lives in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the way acts of nature changed lives in two trend-setting disaster novels of the 1940’s, George R. Stewart’s Storm (1941) and Fire (1948). One family most seriously affected is that of Louis Holland, whose grandmother is knocked off a barstool and killed by the first quake while she is trying to reach a bottle of whiskey. Her estate, valued at approximately $22 million, goes to Louis’ mother, Melanie.

Most of Melanie Holland’s inheritance is in the form of shares of stock in a Massachusetts chemical company called Sweeting-Aldren....

(The entire section contains 2390 words.)

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