So far (Day 1: 156 pages into it), I'd have to agree with James Wood (the excellent literary critic, not James Woods, the intrepid, terrorist-spotting actor) in his review of the book in The New Republic. When Franzen concentrates on character and the inner workings of the psyche, he's spot-on and does some nice, perceptive writing (about most of the characters. I'm finding the matriarch of the family nothing but a fluttery stereotype so far). But when he tries to get all pretentiously "social novel" on us and impress us in his knowledge of railroads or post-communist Lithuanian economies, he loses us.
Three rather nice, ever-so-brief descriptions of a character's reality:
Outside, a wind from the south had picked up, a thawing wind that quickened the patter of snowmelt on the back patio. The sense that Chip had had when the phone rang--that his misery was optional--had left him again.
The subtle signs that Denise [daughter] was exercising patience--the slightly deeper breaths she took, the soundless way she set her fork down on her plate and took a sip of wine and set the glass back down--were more hurtful to Enid [mother] than a violent explosion.
To Chip the air felt disagreeably intimate, like a warm spot in a swimming pool.
This whole business between Franzen and Oprah is interesting.
She picked the book for her book club, he indicated his (a) surprise and (b) mild distress, the latter, he claimed, because the "Oprah's Book Club" sticker would mess up the cover. Of course it's also possible his distress was a smart publicity ploy to keep the buzz going on his book, since now people are actually reading it, instead of just talking about it, and finding it a little tougher going (see "Lithuania" above) than the drooling critics hinted it might be.
As usual, see Moby Lives for all your literary gossip needs.