The idyllic lives of civic-minded environmentalists Patty and Walter Berglund come into question when their son moves in with aggressive Republican neighbors, green lawyer Walter takes a job in the coal industry, and go-getter Patty becomes increasingly unstable and enraged.
But, forgive me, despite the brilliance, or maybe even because of it, I found the novel quite unappealing, maybe because every line, every insight, seems covered with a light film of disdain. Franzen seems never to have met a normal, decent, struggling human being whom he didn't want to make us feel ever so slightly superior to. His book just has too much brightness and not enough color.
First, his imagination is entirely swept up in making portraits of social classes, neighborhoods, civics, types, social structures, and upper-middle class aspirations. For me, the difficulty is that I don’t read in order to see “my time” mirrored in a book (thinking of Mailer’s “The Time of My Time”). I have a minimal interest in reading depictions of my time, class, or region, and I do not try to find that in novels. As in “The Twenty-Seventh City,” his imagination is filled with people who are far more likely than average Americans to be concerned about, and involved in, their local government. When he writes about people’s private lives, he is interested in marriage, children, inheritance, patrimony, succession, mobility -- things that impinge on the bourgeois life. (And even if you read this as a barometer or mirror of our time, there’s a problem: Franzen can’t find anything nice to say about the conservatives in his novel, and he can’t find anything wrong with the liberals except their guilt. He repeats his one insight about liberal guilt about five times in the novel, without realizing that a reader might expect him to develop it.)
Second, his prose is serviceable, dependable, unremarkable. His writer’s voice is strangely smooth, easily eloquent, almost slick like a liberal politician’s voice. The writing is unremittingly bland, accomplished but not interesting. Every four or five pages he inserts a striking metaphor or a bit of naturalistic description, almost as if it’s an expected ornament in a novel. The etiquette of his writing in this regard makes me queasy: it’s so well-behaved, so silver-spoonish, so far from any awkwardness or embarrassment. It’s dim, empty, and wholly proper prose, polished by politeness.
And what, in the end, drives this impeccably well-behaved prose express? Given his chosen subject matter, I can’t help but see it as aspirational: it announces its author’s suitability for the next higher social class. I think Bellow, Updike, and Roth would have hated Franzen. Where is the shuddering insecurity and sickening weirdness of adolescence that Wallace knew so well? Where is the personal risk that Vollmann is so good at? Where is the writing? How many interesting, quotable sentences are there in this book?
At the same time I read this, I reader Thomas Bernhard’s “The Lime Works.” The first sentence of that book is a bizarre masterpiece, so much richer, better written, better imagined, than anything in this massive anodyne harmless lesson in the blandness of Franzen’s White educated liberal American twenty-first century.
Patty and Walter Berglund are in many ways the typical middle-American couple. They live in the suburbs and have exactly two children (one boy and one girl). Patty becomes the traditional stay at home mom, and Walter is a successful environmental lawyer. But, despite the outside wrappings, this is a couple whose lives are far from perfect. Joey, their son, starts having sex early and then moves next door to live with his obsessed girlfriend; Walter’s best friend from college is a rock star whose propensity to disrespect women is actually an attractant rather than a repellent for Patty; and when Walter takes a job working with a big coal company whose idea of preservation first involves blowing the tops off of pristine mountains…all bets are suddenly off.
Freedom is a huge, sprawling book that follows the lives of the Berglunds and their closest friends and relatives for decades. Along the way there is humor, cynicism, love, betrayal, and the consequences of too much freedom. Franzen explores adultery, rape, teenage lust, environmental catastrophe, greed, and political shallowness. It all adds up to a rather negative, albeit amusing, look at contemporary America – especially that of parenting and marriage.
This was my first Franzen novel, and I was impressed by his characterizations and impeccable skill at the craft of writing. At times I found myself laughing out loud at Franzen’s sardonic sense of humor; but mostly I found myself marveling at the genius of his prose. Freedom is not a light read. It is a rather negative view of the American way of life – not all I agreed with, but many times the truth of the novel was hard to deny. The characters in this novel are hardly likable. Instead, they are flawed and use their freedom to mess up their lives and the lives of those they love. Despite not really liking any of the characters, I did end up liking the book.
Since finishing this novel, I’ve read some wildly disparate reviews of it. Some people love it; others hate it; some never finished it…and I see where not everyone will connect to Freedom. On the other hand, once in a long time a novel comes along which is truly an “American” novel from start to finish. I think Freedom fits the bill. Despite painting America with a negative brush, Franzen also provides an interesting perspective on what life is like in the 21st century. Whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, Freedom is an entertaining read.
Highly recommended for readers who enjoy literary fiction.
Freedom is mostly about the marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund and whether or not it can survive the strains put on it by their son, Joey, and Walter's best friend from college, Richard. Walter is an environmental lawyer, a "genuinely nice person" and long-suffering. Patty, who once excelled at collegiate basketball until she blew out her knee, is now a "fresh-faced mom with a dark side." In an effort not to repeat her parents' mistakes in distancing themselves from her, Patty becomes inappropriately close to her son (her "Designated Understander") and inadvertently pushes him away. The first big crisis in the Berglund's marriage is Joey's decision to essentially divorce his parents. The second big crisis is Patty's losing battle in fighting her sexual longing for Richard.
Over the course of 562 pages, Franzen alternately delves into the conflicted interior lives of Patty, Walter, Richard and Joey while also commenting on the absurdities of contemporary life. He can go on for more than a page without inserting a period. I found that when I started a chapter I needed to be sure I wouldn't be interrupted. The lives of these characters became so engrossing and Franzen's writing so entertaining that it was like I was under a spell while I was reading each chapter that I didn't want broken.
The title seems to be about how our freedom of choice in this country only serves to make most of us miserable. "People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. . . . (T)he one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."
"The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever go sour, to misanthropy and rage." Walter, unfortunately, becomes increasing unhinged as his marriage and his career start to unravel. "How many thousand more times, he wondered, am I going to let this woman stab me in the heart?" His efforts to build a preserve for the Cerulean blue warbler (the bird on the book jacket) in West Virginia are compromised, to the say the least. And he eventually becomes somewhat of a crank going door-to-door trying to convince his neighbors to keep their cats indoors. The birds are "running out of space altogether, because there's more and more development. So it's important that we try to be responsible stewards to this wonderful land that we've taken over." ("Walter had never liked cats. . . They'd seemed to him the sociopaths of the pet world.")
While the story can get intense at times, Franzen's writing is darkly humorous--"The country that minutely followed every phony turn of American Idol while the world went up in flames seemed to Walter fully deserving of whatever nightmare future awaited it"--and there is hope at the end; his characters do learn something from their mistakes.
The only reasons I'm not giving this book 5 stars are (1) because the use of third-person narration in the part of the book which is supposed to be Patty's autobiography didn't really work for me while I was reading it (although it occurred to me that the point was to reinforce that Patty wasn't taking any responsibility for her mistakes), and (2) even though the book was totally absorbing when I read it, I often put it aside and as a result it took me almost 3 weeks to read. Not sure if that was because I was trying to read several other books at the same time or it was just too intense to read all the way through in a few days.
Bottom line: Highly recommended; one of my favorite books this year; 4 1/2 stars.
The story chronicles the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund from their ‘70s college days in Minnesota through their 25 year marriage.
Patty and Walter are an upper middle class, politically progressive couple living in urban St. Paul. Both grew up in dysfunctional families and both were black sheep. Walter is good husband and provider who blindly loves Patty despite her emotional shortcomings. Outwardly Patty is a model mother and homemaker but harbors deep seated insecurities. She is inordinately attached to her son but insensitive to her daughter. Walter, the opposite.
Another key character is Walter’s best friend Richard Katz, a charming but feckless rock musician. Richard is Walter’s foil. Patty has silently carried a torch for him from the day she met him during her sophomore year of college.
Unbeknownst to Walter, Patty and Richard engage in a brief but passionate affair. Patty’s ambivalence about her infidelity, in direct contrast to Walter’s single-minded loyalty, contributes to her painful emotional decline. Alienated by Patty’s volatility, Walter bit by bit distances himself from the marriage. This detachment is hastened by his growing affection for a pretty, young co-worker. But, eventually Walter learns the truth about Richard and Patty’s affair and the two separate.
The reason the book is so popular (aside from Franzen’s excellent writing) is that readers can easily relate to one or more of the story’s characters. Some readers will recognize the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family; others will relate to damage from long repressed desire; still others will empathize with an ordinary couple slowly growing apart. Remarkably, Franzen tells the story from different viewpoints (Patty’s, Walter’s, Richard’s, and others) without wavering from third party point-of-view.
The problem is that Franzen’s writing is so good the reader fully understands the characters in about 80% of the prose devoted to them. An extra 100 or so pages of wit, satire, pathos and storyline are just more words. They fail to add additional depth. I found myself hurrying along at the end just to get it over with.
Nevertheless the book is so well written with such richly developed characters I certainly recommend it.
The book begins with a summary of the life that Walter and Patty Berglund built for their young family in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. It shows how neighbors saw the nice Berglunds, but quickly moves on to Patty telling her own story in the third person, a very different tale altogether.
Franzen's not one who will amaze the reader with the beauty of his prose or the delicate intricacies of his language. Where he excels, and excels in a startling, astonishing way, is how he can write simultaneously with contempt and with great compassion about his all too human characters. He also is able to detail the way family members love each other and yet can't communicate or willfully miscommunicate with each other. And even as the Berglunds royally mess up their own lives, he allows them moments of forgiveness and grace.
Let me preface my remarks by stating the obvious: it’s not easy to publish literary fiction in this country. Literary fiction writers like Jonathan Franzen, Wally Lamb, Jeffrey Eugenides and a handful of others have to compete in the publishing world with brand name authors: political personages like Sarah Palin or pop celebrities like Madonna, who generate controversy and attract media coverage, which in turn boosts book sales. They also compete with genre fiction writers, such as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, who provide entertainment for the general public. But literary fiction also remains, above all, an aesthetic genre. At its best, it delivers strong characterizations, an individual style—as unique as the fingerprints of its authors—psychological depth, cohesive, well-balanced structures and outstanding plots, full of twists and surprises.
Furthermore, literary fiction is not easily digestible: it requires a lot of patience, thought and, since such novels probe into our natures and motivations, a not always pleasurable introspection. Which is perhaps why –along with poetry and independent films–literary fiction tends to get great critical reviews but doesn’t usually sell well. So when an author manages to write literary fiction that is top-notch quality and appeals to the general public, the only way I can explain this magic is through that je ne sais quoi, the WOW! factor.
Granted, Jonathan Franzen had a lot going for him: Ophrah’s attention (the mere presence in Oprah’s Book Club makes any book sell well); an outstanding literary agent (Susan Golomb) and the support of a publisher who is known for publishing top literary fiction (Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux). But talking about all of this “cultural capital” in Franzen’s corner really begs the question. Because his new novel wasn’t chosen at random: it really deserves the endorsements it gets.
Freedom is, first of all, a family epic. It traces the lives of two generations of Americans: Patty and Walter Berglund and their children, Joey and Jessica. The novel offers a masterful sketch of two eras in American culture, not just the portrait of a family. For additional interest and spice, there’s the drama and tension of a love triangle. Patty becomes infatuated with her husband’s best friend, the renegade musician, Richard Katz. In its vivid portrayals of the love story between Patty and Walter and the affair between Patty and Richard, Freedom shows us the difference between infatuation—with its long-term obsessions and explosive, but short-lived sexual excitement–and love, with its combination of loyalty, disappointment and real-life challenges.
The novel’s tension is maintained not just by the drama of the plot, but also by the depth and balance of its characterizations. The main characters function as each other’s foils: the moral, straight-laced Walter is a foil for Richard Katz, the egotistic musician, whose outlook reminds me of Ivan’s famous saying in The Brothers Karamazov: “But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.” Similarly, Patty, the competitive housewife prone to depression is counterbalanced by her pragmatic, even-keeled daughter, Jessica. Finally, the doting, self-effacing neighbor’s daughter, Connie, functions as the perfect complement and foil to the outgoing and self-confident Joey. Their youthful love story reveals the perfect match between idolizer and idol, which could prompt many a psychologist to analyses of the workings of narcissism and co-dependency, but which also remains more touching and unique than popular psychology. The characterizations in this novel are so compelling that it’s as if the author immersed himself into mindset of each character, a process reminiscent of Flaubert’s saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Which brings me to my initial point: Freedom definitely captures the WOW! factor. For me, the WOW! factor happens when a writer appeals to the greatest number of readers without sacrificing anything in quality (characterization, plot, structure or style).
As a fiction writer and literary critic, I’ve been an avid reader of contemporary fiction for a long time. Novels like Franzen’s Freedom, which magically combine mass appeal with aesthetic qualities, remind me of why if you make it as a novelist in the U.S., you make it internationally. To keep afloat in a very competitive and rapidly changing environment, American publishers demand mass appeal from all of their writers. Meeting the highest aesthetic standards, as Franzen’s Freedom does, is just an added bonus: that unforgettable yet unmistakable WOW! factor.
Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com
There are certainly parts of the novel that flagged a bit, but I attribute this to my own prejudices and literary tastes rather than any particular fault of the novel itself. When you compare it to other novels available today, this one is easily a cut above. Take a few days and read it.
Anywhoozie, I loved this book. I didn't pick it up excited; I didn't have great expectations for it; I thought it was probably overrated. I put it down moved, joyful and grateful.
As much as I was impressed and engrossed by the story and its themes, I cannot help shake the feeling that it was a little too earnest and sincere. There are no moments of levity, no pratfalls or jokes. There is lightness, beauty, and the occasional bit of hope, but nothing that made me grin or chuckle.
However this is only a very minor and very subjective flaw. Hardly a flaw at all if what you are after is a masterful and thought-provoking Serious Book.
This book received quite a bit of hype when it first came out, even making itself onto Oprah's 2010 book club selection. I mean, it has an introspective look at what the typical middle-class family's troubles might go through, from the wee beginnings of father issues over many generations and its repetitive cycle as the younger generation comes of age. For all of that, it really lives up to its promise. It's not a bad book by any means. Franzen is a good writer, and writes about issues that are extremely relatable.
Granted, that's about all it offers. If you're looking for a story that will offer some sort of redemption to its characters, then try something else. I hardly found any characters that were worth liking. Everyone was just depressing. Not to mention that nearly all the female characters in the book were focused on the men. Ultimately, I found myself wanting to finish because I wanted to know what happened at the end. And really, the only interesting thing that happens is that a cat dies.
Now the hype that surrounds the book may be a bit over done, but that's not the fault of the book, nor the author, but is more symptomatic of our own culture.
Not a bad book by any means. But not a great book either.
Fascinating book for readers my age - although the main characters got much closert to real power than I will probably ever ghet. Perhaps a littel oversimplistically drawn. The cool musician (Richard to the others but Katz to himself) is a twot - but is still the cool guy we all wanted to be. Walter the good guy is just too good, but his lover Lalitha is very sexily drawn. Patty's kids and sisters are also caricatures. Does any young man really disdain blowjobs and would her sisters be quite so pathetic if the story was written from their angle? Patty is by far the most interesting and well drawn character, although it is not at all clear why the two leading men are so fascinated by her.
I enjoyed the the book and it is a measure of its success in getting at me that I actually cared about the characters enough to really want a happy ending.
We think it's why "they" hate us. It's why untold numbers of Americans have died in untold numbers of wars. Our freedoms of speech, press, vote, travel, commerce, worship are what we wave as proof of our nations' greatness. Nowhere in the world do people love the individual like America. Our fascination with the lone man is, perhaps, our greatest asset and weakness.
Here's the thing, though. Too much freedom tempts the individual away, makes him think more of his own concerns rather than the concerns of another person, community, country, or planet.
Now take this idea and upon it, hang a family.
Walter and Patty Bergland have all the freedoms that money, education, and liberal attitudes can buy. Throughout their long, protracted story, we watch them make bad choice after bad choice in search of self-gratification. But this is an oversimplified assessment of their motives. They are good people trying to do right by their families. That they screw up at every turn is not really their fault: America makes heroes of actors and sports stars; we created the professional celebrity. We forgive the rich, but God help you if you're poor. In Franzen's novel, caring about the planet is stomachable only if big business can profit from it. Because wealth is the mark of a man, the Berglands are up against a world that cares most about fair access to money instead of simple joys like health, family and equality. They end up sharing so much with the world, and so little with one another.
But lest I make this book sound like some slanted screed on a red or blue world view, be assured the message goes way beyond politics. No one comes off as hero or villain. It's hard to watch the Berglands screw up their lives, but in Franzen's universe, we can only redeem ourselves when we embrace some of the ideas that may get us, as a country, kicked off the island--which, in a way, is sort of what happens to Walter. And when he does find himself alone and regarded by outsiders as eccentric, unlikeable, maybe even dangerous, he finally discovers the way to survive is not by isolating himself, but by embracing for all he's worth a person he has literally frozen out.
I think the reason this novel is being hailed as a masterpiece, which seems to have galled a lot of people, is because Franzen dares to look at our country's iconic promise, and asks if it's really worth it. We seem to have too much freedom already. How much more self-involved can we get? His answer, which comes in the form of a endangered bird, gives us hope.
If it's rare for me to give out a perfect 10 here at CCLaP (only two to three books per year rate as such), then it's unheard of for me to give two perfect 10s within just a week or two of each other; yet that's exactly what I find myself doing today, as I recently followed up Jonathan Evison's remarkable West of Here in my reading list with Jonathan Franzen's equally remarkable Freedom, undoubtedly the most hotly anticipated book of the last six months, and whose release last fall triggered a simultaneous wave of orgasms from ten thousand NPR reporters and Brooklyn cupcake-store owners that could be felt all the way to Portland itself. And that's because, in many people's eyes (including my own -- let me make my biases clear right away), Franzen is a good bet for being one of the handful of contemporary novelists to eventually define our times for future eyes; he has the academic credibility, after all, plus the mainstream success that lets him be a part of the larger popular culture (why, just his saga with Oprah alone will probably merit him at least a footnote in literary history), plus is known for writing massive, complicated, yet touching and bizarrely funny family sagas, the exact kind of thing that makes for easy bestsellers but that academic committees feel okay giving awards to as well.
And indeed, as I started making my way through this latest book of his last week, I couldn't help but think how similar it is to Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, now that I've finally read that too; and in fact, Freedom comes curiously close to the hypothetical modern remake of Karenina that I mentioned in my write-up, only with his upper-class, eco-conscious, dysfunctional liberals living in the tony suburbs of Minnesota instead of Wisconsin, and with their occasional urban sojourns being to New York instead of Chicago. Because that's really the most important thing about Franzen to know; that much like Sinclair Lewis in the 1920s, Franzen is mostly known for these scathing indictments against the blandly left middle-class and nouveau-riche, almost blasphemous looks at how the hypocrisies and neuroses of such people directly lead to their own downfall -- and like Lewis in the '20s, Franzen's success is due mostly to the fawning love shown him by the exact bumbling middle-class lefties that he so excoriates in his stories.
So that becomes a fascinating question just on its own, of why there are these points in history when the banally evil get great delight out of stories that viciously attack them; and as we can see in Franzen's work when we look closely at it (and Lewis, and John Cheever, and Gustave Flaubert, and all the other writers in history who fit into this pattern), perhaps this is due to certain points in history being complicated ones, where the million small, forgivable sins of a million otherwise decent people is all it takes to create one giant uncontrollable mess, a catastrof-ck that affects us all but that can be blamed on no one specific group, thus necessitating the guilt-fueled self-punishment that has made Franzen such a hit in his time, just like Lewis and Cheever and Flaubert were in their own. I mean, it's hard to deny that this is what Freedom is mostly about, is the various ways that well-meaning dupes end up causing havoc and destruction to everything they touch, through a series of moral compromises that are justified as an inevitable part of the modern world -- from the environmental lawyer who gets in bed with the clear-cut mining industry in order to save an endangered bird, to his neocon son who decides to take on a government contract to procure used truck parts to send to Iraq, just to have the whole thing turn into a third-world nightmare of corruption and violence, to the failed middle-aged musician who has an affair with the lawyer's trainwreck wife, then writes an alt-country album about the experience that becomes the biggest hit of his career.
But at the same time, though, it's the uniqueness of Franzen's voice that really set his novels apart, away from other writers who might happen to be juggling the same general issues; because I have to confess, Franzen is one of the only writers working today where I literally cannot guess from even one page to the next where the story is heading, with his plots taking so many random, unexpected spins and jumps that it's simply a delight just to see what happens next. But like all the greatest writers in history, even though his storylines are impeccably weird and complex, they're mere window dressing to the character exploration he does in his books, the main reason to be reading them; because in this menagerie of angry family members and bizarre liberals, we're sure to see at least a bit of ourselves, with Freedom being a fine examination of how exactly American society could've gone so wrong during the Bush years of the early 2000s, even more fascinating for it being told form the perspective of the people who don't think they're the guilty ones, but are perhaps just as much to blame as the actual bible-thumpers, teabaggers and torturing soldiers.
And yes, Franzen fans, I know, this is starting to sound an awful lot like his last novel, the equally brilliant The Corrections, which is perhaps the main criticism you can make of this book, that the author simply repeats himself a little too much for some people's tastes; but I instead prefer to look back again at the authors I've already mentioned, to see the relationship between The Corrections and Freedom to be the same as the one between Tolstoy's Karenina and War and Peace, or Lewis' Babbitt, Main Street and Arrowsmith, not repeats or ripoffs but companion pieces set in the same shared universe, part of a more massive "meta-tale" that Franzen is weaving together out of his entire oeuvre, which again can be directly compared to, say, how all the characters in Cheever's hundreds of short stories all seem to be vaguely related to each other. This doesn't really bother me, when similar novels from a single author feel more like interlocking pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle; all I ask is that the quality remain excellent from one title to the next, which is something no one can deny when it comes to Freedom versus The Corrections.
It basically boils down to this, that I can't imagine how Franzen could've made this any better than it currently is; and that's a strong motivation for giving a book a 10, when it feels like it literally wouldn't be possible for an editor to go in there and make changes that are legitimately needed. It's one of those books that completely sucked me in while I was reading it, to the point of manytimes no longer even noticing my public surroundings; and this is what the pleasure-reading experience should always be at its absolute best, which is why I consider Freedom among the absolute best that's out there. Needless to say, it comes highly recommended today.
Out of 10: 10
I have such mixed feelings about this book. I can see why it's gotten so much positive buzz. Franzen's writing is very good, his characters well-drawn and believable, and his take on relationships often quite insightful. Some of the political elements of the novel feel a little awkward, as if he's trying a little too hard to be politically relevant, but that's not really a big problem for me. What is kind of a problem is that fact that the book is just too darned long. Not that I have a problem with long books per se, but this one feels like it overstays its welcome. The characters may be well-drawn and believable, but they're just not quite interesting enough to carry 562 pages, and by the end, I was getting tired of their company.
Rating: A reluctant 3.5/5. If it were about 150 pages shorter, I think it would have easily earned a 4.