Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, 576 pages
Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.
But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?
In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.
Jonathan Franzen writes Very Serious books, much too serious for the likes of Oprah and her silly book club (which chose such lightweight fluff in the past as William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy — good going there, Franzen, you schmuck). But in fairness, Franzen apologized (no doubt after his agent and publisher screamed at him "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR F#@&ING MIND?") and Oprah endorsed his next big American novel, Freedom.
Freedom is a novel that establishes Franzen as one of the great social critics and commentators like Charles Dickens or Héctor Tobar. It is finely crafted, involving storytelling that takes aim at a distinctly American microcosm and peels back the skin, showing veins and ugliness. Franzen is also an author like Roth, Bellow, Updike, and Murakami, writing stories in which moments of life-changing revelation are delivered to middle-aged dudes by fresh young poontang.
Walter and Patty Berglund are the happily-on-the-surface married protagonists of Freedom. Patty is an inoffensively domestic former student athlete, Walter is a successful environmental lawyer.
The first step in Walter's downfall is his negotiations with a coal mining company. Believing he can deal with the Devil and come out on top, this cannot end well, but he has a faithful cheerleader in the form of his adoring and nubile young assistant, Lalitha. This also cannot end well.
The "predictable" trainwreck is not the conjunction of Walter compromising his ideals and compromising his marriage, though. It's Walter finding out that Patty has never truly been in love with him and she settled. Settled for the almost offensively nice guy Walter because he at least offered proximity to his rock star best friend, Richard Katz.
Patty has a number of issues to work out, and she does so in a well-executed secondary narrative through her autobiographical journal, taking us through her high school and college years and her introduction to Walter and Richard, and her acting out every horrible cliche about nice girls wanting to fuck rock stars and then marry lawyers.
The first of several shattering blows to Walter's manhood and his world comes when he is given Patty's journal. As big a schmuck as Walter is, as much as you want to smack some man-sense into him after reading Patty's narrative, it is impossible not to feel sorry for him when the unmanning happens. When he realizes that the woman he put on a pedestal settled for him, and his best friend is the only one who ever made her scream.
This book is about a family unraveling, but it's clearly metaphorical for the unraveling of the privileged American Whole Foods generation. It's brilliantly told and all the subplots deliver a payoff, including redemption for all survivors in the end.
There are also at least two scenes involving poop and several reflections on penises. Clearly, Franzen does not mind sharing his Freudian fixations with his readers.
Have you read Freedom?
Have you read any other books by Jonathan Franzen?
Verdict: A complex narrative by a gifted writer who clearly doesn't care who he does or doesn't appeal to. I enjoyed Freedom despite or because of the way it made me squirm on several levels. It also a quintessentially American novel, and at times it's not clear whether it's meant to praise or bury the American dream. Recommended as an important and worthy read, though not necessarily to everyone's taste.
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