Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (by Jill)

I have to make a confession: I put off reading books that I deem to be “too popular,” no matter how much I am told (or believe myself) I will enjoy them.  For example, I have not read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  I have not read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.  It’s just a principle thing.  And I apologize to the people who have recommended these books to me over the years, especially my good friend Anita, who is hopefully reading this post.  It’s not you.  It’s me.  Likewise, I have not read The Corrections, despite its presence on the Oprah’s Book Club roll sheet.  For a while, I read all of “her” books, but then I stopped, because I didn’t want a daytime television personality dictating my reading choices.  I’m a rebel, yes I am.

I do own Life of Pi, The Kite Runner, and even The Corrections.  Maybe I’ll even read them one day and see if they live up to the hype.  But not until everyone else has forgotten that they exist.

But for now, I’m supposed to be talking about Freedom, another Oprah’s Book Club selection, and so much more significant because she doesn’t select books for this very often anymore.  I can sum this book up in one work: amazing.  Franzen captures life in post-9/11 America so well.  There are just enough popular culture references that it’s obvious when the action takes place, but not so much that it’s intrusive.  The characterizations are seamless.  I hate it when character development is obvious, and I felt myself knowing these characters without even being told what they were like.  These characters are often sympathetic—but often not—which are the best kind to read about: the ones that are the most real.  It’s become obvious to me over the years that no one is perfect, but you learn to love people despite (or because of) their flaws.

The focus of Freedom is the Berglund family: Patty, Walter, Joey, and Jessica.  Other major characters are Richard Katz (the best friend), Connie (the neighbor girl), and Lalitha (the mid-life-crisis).  Patty and Walter meet in college in Minnesota in the 1970’s.  Patty’s best friend Eliza (who is a crazy person, but she is not important enough to warrant more than a parenthetical mention, though much could be said about her in a separate essay) is dating Walter’s best friend Richard.  Patty is initially attracted to Richard, because he is a bad boy rocker type, though she responds to law student Walter’s sweet and genuine advances, initially in an effort to get closer to Richard.  Ultimately she has a decision to make: drive off with Richard in his van to New York, or stay in Minnesota to be with Walter.  She ultimately decides to return to Walter, though she makes it to Chicago with Richard.  End of story, right?  Of course not.  That’s just the beginning.

At the beginning of their happily ever after, Patty and Walter seem happy enough.  They buy a house in St. Paul, restore it, and have two kids.  The kids seem like good kids, until Joey turns fourteen and takes up with the neighbor’s sixteen-year-old daughter Connie.  It’s at that point that the façade of perfection and happiness that the Berglunds have built up begins to fall apart, a bit at a time, until all of a sudden in 2004 Walter is driving around in a van with his much-younger assistand/girlfriend Lalitha on a mission to bring the issue of the Earth’s over-population to the forefront of national consciousness, Joey is selling scrap metal to the government, and Patty is living with Richard in Jersey City, despite that she claims to truly love Walter.

The interesting thing about reading this book right after Sarah’s Key is that Franzen manages to invest more humanity and detail into the most minor characters in his fiction than de Rosnay puts into some of the major characters in her book.  Patty’s younger sister Veronica is present for less than twenty pages, but I felt like I knew her better in those twenty pages than I knew Bertrand, Julia’s husband, in all the many pages of space he took up.

The other interesting thing about Freedom is that is definitely has a beginning, middle, and end, and the ending is actually sort of a satisfying one.  So many authors these days seem to think that in order to be modern, or post-modern, or what-have-you the story needs to start at the end and end in the middle, or just stop.  Sometimes in the middle of a sentence.  But Franzen proves that this does not need to be the case.

He also describes depression, in all of its many faces, amazingly well.  All of the characters, with the exception of Jessica, who never really has a lot of his attention (probably because she is the only emotionally healthy Berglund), suffer from depression at some point or another.  Some are medicated, some are self-medicated, and some just muddle through on their own.  I could also probably write an entire blog post about the nature of depression in the 21st century as it’s described in Freedom.  Maybe one of these days I’ll actually do that.

The only problem that I had with this book was a small one: Franzen jumped around quite a bit in time (which has never bothered me, I am a child of the Pulp Fiction era), but sometimes it was difficult to tell when in time he was in relation to other events.  And maybe this was because I was reading in large chunks, sometimes right before I fell asleep, which always makes remembering details difficult.  I’d be curious to know if other people noticed this as well.  Or am I being too anal retentive about the timeline?  It’s possible.

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