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Customer Review

3,426 of 3,914 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars don't believe the hype!, September 20, 2010
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This review is from: Freedom: A Novel (Hardcover)
Negative reviews get no love on Amazon, but, having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc., I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.

I read and enjoyed The Corrections, so was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years. What he's been up to is, essentially, rewriting The Corrections, but extracting all the humor that leavened the misanthropic bleakness of his vision in the earlier work. Once again we're presented with an outwardly "perfect" nuclear Midwestern family that secretly consists of neurotic hysterics with low self-esteem who ultimately find themselves mired in infidelity and morally dubious business dealings. Once again the focus is on generational conflict, and the "sins of the fathers" revisited in the lives of the children.

Besides the lack of originality, the problem, in essence, is this time out I don't believe a single, solitary word of it. I don't believe in liberal middle-class parents who'd let their teenage son move in with their obnoxious Republican neighbors. I don't believe in a talented college athlete who'd let herself be hoodwinked for years by a ditzy, obsessive fan. I don't believe in a committed environmentalist who'd sign off on strip mining vast tracts of virgin forest in the name of reclaiming those tracts many years afterwards for a single-species preserve. I don't believe in a 19-year-old arms dealer making procurement purchases in Paraguay. I don't believe in a couple who remain married, but utterly incommunicado, for 6 years. I don't believe in a 47-year-old man with no religious convictions who is trying beer for the very first time, and is prone to bursting into tears on the least provocation. And that's just for starters.

Worse, the dialogue this time out is actually painful to read in its patent artificiality. I defy anyone to point to a passage in this book and seriously maintain that this is how parents, children or lovers actually talk to one another, in 2010 or ever. It's as stilted and laden with portentousness as soap opera dialogue. In a plot-driven page-turner in the Grisham mode, this wouldn't be a fatal flaw, but Freedom, with its political and social preoccupations, is a novel that wants to be taken be seriously, and that's simply not possible when the characters speak in an uninterrupted steam of cliche.

The very worst bit, however, is Patty's 200-page "autobiography" which purports to be her life story told in her own voice, but is, in fact, completely indistinguishable from the authorial voice used in the rest of the novel. That this "autobiography" is later part of significant -- and, again, wholly unbelievable -- plot twist compounds this reader's dismay.

A last problem is the characterization in the novel. One-dimensional caricatures abound, from Patty's Hippie-dippy sister Abigail to Walter's starry-eyed, buxom assistant Lalith to Joey's shallow, glamour-puss love-interest Jenna to the shrill Fundamentalist kook who plays a significant role in the final section of the novel. The main characters -- Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey -- are more developed, but scarcely more believable. Walter's character, for instance, does a 180 -- starting as a preternaturally patient, kind, dutiful son and husband, and becoming an erratic, impatient, unhinged hothead. The problem is not so much the change in personality -- people do change over time -- but the fact that the reader isn't privy to what drives or motivates the change. We see the college-age milquetoast and the middle-aged fanatic, but no steps in between.

It gives me no particular pleasure to trash this novel. Franzen is to be commended for attempting something ambitious in a Tolstoyan mode (Tolstoy is, in fact, referenced directly and indirectly throughout the novel) -- to give an American picture of "how we live now." But, for me, unfortunately, his effort here falls completely flat, and I can't possibly recommend it to anyone.
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Tracked by 26 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 563 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 20, 2010 5:27:59 AM PDT
Although I don't agree with your conclusions, I think this is an excellent example of how a 1-star review should be written. You very convincingly state your case and provide lots of backup for your opinions, which is your personal "truth." I commend you for this.

Posted on Sep 20, 2010 8:36:32 AM PDT
Kellie says:
Yup. That is about as good an assessment as can be made.

Posted on Sep 20, 2010 9:27:40 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 20, 2010 1:04:42 PM PDT
I'm not sure I agree about the unbelievability of the characters and their stories, or about the utility of that 'unbelievability' (I've enjoyed a lot of John Irving's characters who make Frantzen's characters utterly mundane) ... but I was, as you, (a) deeply offended that the voice of the 'autobiography' segments was indistinguishable from the author's, and (b) disappointed at the introduction of a cardboard character for the sole purpose of killing her off to move the story along. Good review.

Posted on Sep 20, 2010 12:53:39 PM PDT
Finally, a thoughtful 1-star review! I loved this book, but I can appreciate someone who takes the time to give the reasons for detesting it.

There are a few things I would take you to task with, though. :--> But I will just mention the one thing that sticks out for me--re Walter. I don't think he did a 180 per se. "Patient, kind, dutiful son and husband"--?? I was waiting for him to become unhinged, in a sense, because there were clues all along about his character--they were subtle at times, but there were clues all along about his feelings of repression and even oppression, as well as envy. I saw it coming almost from the moment that Joey moved next door.

But, also, by the time he DID become unhinged--well, his life and loves had fallen apart, and that could do anyone in.

Also, you were PO'd at the one-dimensionality of characters. To me, if Walter was nothing other than patient and kind and dutiful, that would have painted him pretty narrow, don't you think? It seems you are complaining that the complexity of his character was to such an extent that he didn't perform one-dimensionally.


In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2010 1:10:43 PM PDT
Not speaking in any way for the OP, but:

What was the purpose in making the doomed one-dimensional stooge subcontinental? Let me guess? Could it be because the device would have been even more offensively transparent had he not?

Note that I had no problem with Irving killing off developed characters in the middle of Hotel New Hampshire; it was strange, but he was the author. This is NOT comparable. This is manipulation. IMHO

Posted on Sep 20, 2010 1:42:28 PM PDT
rc says:
It gave me no particular pleasure to dismiss Freedom as trash. At least I recycled this hulk of a disaster.
-Patty was date raped. Yes so, and Mr. Franzen? -Patty and Walter's son moves next door and has sex with girl and the girl is on the brink of mental melt-down what ho! Her prince to the rescue! This book makes no sense. Whatsoever.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2010 2:41:53 PM PDT
Yep. That bothered me too. Hard to figure how Patty's self-focus didn't compel her to show some minimal concern for Connie's situation.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2010 9:39:38 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 20, 2010 9:53:25 PM PDT
zashibis says:
Gratified to see the various positive responses to my negative review, and that not everybody automatically clicks "helpful" only if they happen to agree with the conclusions on offer.

To clarify a couple points:

It's only the minor characters that I'm saying are "one-dimensional." This isn't to say every character in a novel has to have emotional depth and complexity, but when you have too many characters that seem cartoonish (particularly when they are important to the plot, like Lalith) in a novel that seems to aim explicitly for "realism," you have a problem. The most skilled novelists can make even brief walk-on roles seem nuanced, human, but Franzen's walk-ons are all very clearly "types."

I take the point that the seeds of Walter's meltdown are there all along. (Although the extent to which he's psychologically damaged becomes apparent only very late in the novel when Franzen gets around to detailing his childhood.) However, for me the steps from A to Z weren't convincingly developed. I can't help but compare the characters in Freedom to those in War & Peace (a very high bar, but one Franzen invites by repeatedly invoking the novel) in which the characters change a great deal as they grow older, but we're with them every step of the way. I understand that this is a structural choice on the part of Franzen -- to show us the beginning and end of Patty and Walter's story and to gloss over the middle (primarily in that first, very short, distanced chapter) -- but it's a choice that doesn't work for me.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2010 10:10:23 PM PDT
Interesting, zashibis. Thanks for your response, also well thought out.

Just a comment again about Walter. Franzen started very early in the narrative to plant those seeds of Walter's damage. His dysfunctional family life was rendered pretty early on, and then later continued.

I think Franzen's rich characterizations (rich, for me) came from his ability to stay consistent with the psyche of each character, although the characters evolved. But, I felt that the vectors of change in each character were true to the *fundamentals* of each character.

Lalith a cartoon? That seems a stretch, to think that. I do think that she was a mirror for Patty and Walter. At worst, she is a straw character. But, even then, I do think straw characters have their place, and are not a reflexively negative reflection on the author.

To each his own, of course, viva la difference.

For some reason, this novel rang very true for me, and the prose was liquid. By that, I mean that the rhythm was in perfect sync for my ear. I thought the novel was exquisitely nuanced.

He is not Nabakov, no. But I thought he had a great strength of storytelling and compelling characters.

And, also, remember, the characters were "narrated" though the voice of the very envious neighbors. So, there was more than a dose of Schadenfreude in there!


Posted on Sep 21, 2010 6:50:34 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Sep 28, 2010 9:25:33 AM PDT]
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