FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

Book Quote:

“This was what was keeping me awake at night. This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (SEP 3, 2010)

Nearly a decade ago, when Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant novel The Corrections, was released, he created quite a stir in the publishing industry by refusing Oprah’s endorsement. The book went on to become a bestseller nevertheless and also won tons of literary acclaim—including the National Book Award.

This time around, with his new novel Freedom, Franzen is again receiving all kinds of heat from women authors who have complained about the media’s incessant and wide-eyed coverage of his novel. Some might believe this criticism justified. But here’s the catch: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is worth every accolade and every bit of heaping praise it garners. In one word, the novel is spectacular.

Just as The Corrections looked at contemporary American life in the early ‘90s, Freedom trains its lens on the next decade—when the wanton materialism of the Clinton years have come home to roost and is compounded by the irrational fear and overall near-nationalism of the Bush years.

Central to the novel are the Berglunds—Patty and Walter, their college-going daughter Jessica and highschooler, Joey. The opening frame of the novel is told through the eyes of their neighbors in St. Paul, Minnesota—specifically in the Ramsey Hill neighborhood of the city, a neighborhood that the Berglunds boldly ventured into and set up home in, before it became gentrified. All is not sunshine and cheer in the Berglund household though. There’s simmering discontent brewing but what is only outwardly visible to the neighbors is that Joey gets increasingly chummy with the Monaghans next door. In open defiance against his liberal parents, he moves in with this hard-core Republican family after falling in love with their daughter, Connie. The Berglunds move out shortly thereafter and leave for Washington D.C. The next anyone hears about them is when Walter makes national news as “conniving with the coal industry.”

Of course the neighbors can’t figure out how Walter, a person who was “greener than Greenpeace” ends up in bed with the coal industry. So Franzen moves away from this frame and over the course of the novel shows us all that happens to the story’s characters that lead to this sequence of events.

Going back many years, Franzen describes Patty’s privileged yet fractured childhood as the daughter of an upper-middle class New York family, the Emersons. Patty’s mother, Joyce, is too busy committed to the greater good as a politician to spend any sustained time with Patty. The daughter has turned out to be a stranger in any case—becoming a star athlete instead of developing a more artistic bent like her sisters. Joyce’s brushing off a date rape incident is proof to Patty that her mother has her priorities all wrong. So when she lands an admission to college in faraway Minnesota, Patty jumps at the opportunity to place as much distance between herself and her parents, as possible.

It is at college that she meets the love of her life, Walter, and also Richard Katz—a person she is very attracted to. Richard is wild, feral, a womanizer who is trying to carve out a career in music. Walter, for his part, is decency personified. While managing a sticky and hostile situation at home in rural Minnesota, he still manages to woo Patty successfully. The two get married and settle in St. Paul.

In St. Paul, right from the outset, Patty is determined she will be everything her mother was not—she will be a woman who wants children, who will treasure and cherish them. She puts a career on hold and becomes the most efficient stay-at-home mom around. The problems come as the kids grow older—Patty is never able to make any real sense of Jessica’s isolation or Joey’s rebellion. The mental desolation she feels has her retreat to a family lake cottage to remove herself from the daily reminders of how her life has not quite turned out the way she would have liked. It is here that, in a moment of blindness that she will regret forever, she has a brief affair with Richard Katz.

Walter, for reasons of his own, decides to follow his Nature Conservancy efforts to Washington D.C.—the couple move there and Franzen traces their lives here as well—Patty’s unfulfilling work as a gym club receptionist, Walter’s slow fall from grace despite his best intentions and Joey’s hesitant forays into adulthood.

There is hardly an aspect of middle class life that Franzen has not explored in this wonderful novel. What’s more, he does such a superb job with his characters, that the reader totally comes to inhabit their lives and sympathize with (or at least understand) every willful action.

Franzen is a master at understanding human interactions—the subtle “sibling rivalry” between Walter and Richard that builds on every insecurity, is just superb. So too is Patty’s middle-aged ennui—a lifetime spent on her kids turns out to be, in her mind, weightless, when the kids drift apart. “Just because a person isn’t making good use of her life, it doesn’t stop her life from passing. In fact, it makes her life pass all the quicker,” she says. There are many who are doing the middle-aged, middle class plod who will absolutely relate to that statement.

If there’s one complaint to be made about Freedom, it is the abrupt way in which one of the story’s characters makes an exit toward the end. This plot twist seemed a little too convenient and clean. Perhaps Franzen had realized the story was sprawling enough as it is, and this was a quick way to avoid messiness.

All in all though, Freedom is a must-read. Absolutely believe the hype. Not a single word is wasted in its 500+ pages. At one point, when Patty talks about reading War and Peace, Walter admits he’s jealous that she gets to read such a great book for the first time. That’s exactly how I feel about anyone just picking up this wonderful read.

Over the course of the novel, the reader comes to see how the concept of freedom—a word that arguably synthesizes the Bush years better than any other—is interpreted by the story’s main characters. The freedom to indulge many a petty whim and the freedom to make lapses in judgment might not be the best kinds of liberties but they eventually still manage to lead the Berglunds to a better place.

As Walter points out, the freedom to “fuck up your life” is all yours. Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant new novel shows one can do just that and still emerge—shaken, wiser, whole nevertheless.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 1,206 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 31, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jonathan Franzen
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September 3, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Contemporary, Literary

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