Last month I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. For the record, I like the way Franzen writes. I loved The Corrections when it came out back in 2000, and I did enjoy reading this book, but (you knew a but was coming) I am not sure it deserve all of the accolades it has been receiving.
Let's start with a really quick plot. Freedom is the story of Walter and Patty Berglund. It is the story of how they met, their marriage, and how it falls apart. But in true Franzen fashion, the appeal of this novel is not in the plot, it is in how Franzen slowly unveils the story of the Berglunds.
Franzen tells this story through multiple points of view: Patty, Walter, Walter's best friend, the rock star Richard Katz, and the Berglund's son, Joey. It is an episodic story. Each chapter is told from either one of those points of view, or from an all-knowing omniscient narrator who is commenting from somewhere above the situation. The story is not always completely linear and there are holes where we do not know everything that happens. In one big case, 8 years of holes with only a few dozen pages filling it in. Personally, I am fine with this stylistic choice, but I know many readers who do not want either the multiple points of view or the episodic storytelling in their leisure reads. This needs to be pointed out even more than the plot to potential readers as it could be a huge impediment tho their enjoyment of the novel.
These chapters are long and involved, but Franzen is a wonderful writer, and as you read, you are caught up in that character, their individual story, and how it all fits into the overall story. I was riveted by sections and chapters, yet annoyed by others.
The characters are what will stay with you here, whether you like them or not. I for example, was not a fan of Patty, but Joey grew on me. I liked spending time with each of them though. However, in the end, I was not completely satisfied with Freedom. When I finished The Corrections, I couldn't stop thinking about it; I still can't. But with Freedom, I am glad I read it, but it will not stay with me 10 years later.
I need to ask myself why I felt this way though. I think I was left most unsatisfied by the tidy conclusion. These flawed and complicated characters deserved a more nuanced ending. Their lives were too complicated for the happily ever after I felt they got. Also, every member of the family, except the daughter gets a chance to tell their story. Why leave her out?
Finally, I was disappointed by the simplicity of the novel. It is called "Freedom" and every single character thinks they want freedom from the specific thing that is binding them; however, every single one also finds the freedom they achieve unsatisfying and they each go back to their previous situation. Every... single... one... of... them... I would have been much happier with the book and its message if "Freedom" meant something to different to each character.
I guess what I am saying is, I liked reading the book while I was reading it, but when I closed it, I was unimpressed. I wish there was more ambiguity. Each character was individually crafted and unique, yet their reactions to their chance at freedom, were all the same. This was highly unsatisfying.
Also, click here for another review, this one in video form.
Three Words That Describe This Book: character-centered, family dysfunction, episodic
Readalikes: The first place I would direct you for readalikes to Franzen is this list I made a few years ago.
I read Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist a few months ago and wrote about it here. I think this is a better novel of a family falling apart. It is also told in a episodic fashion with shifting points of view.
Other books about family's falling apart that readers may enjoy are Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates or The Ice Storm by Rick Moody and my personal favorite of this bunch, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.
Freedom also reminded me of Don DeLillo's Falling Man and Chang-rae Lee's Aloft (which I read here). All these books share their character centered stories of people who are a bit "lost" and need to find themselves.
In terms of nonfiction, after finishing Freedom, readers may want to know more about mountaintop removal mining or the Cerulean Warbler.
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