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Freedom Hardcover – August 31, 2010
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Amazon Best of the Month, August 2010: "The awful thing about life is this:" says Octave to the Marquis in Renoir's Rules of the Game. "Everyone has his reasons." That could be a motto for novelists as well, few more so than Jonathan Franzen, who seems less concerned with creating merely likeable characters than ones who are fully alive, in all their self-justifying complexity. Freedom is his fourth novel, and, yes, his first in nine years since The Corrections. Happy to say, it's very much a match for that great book, a wrenching, funny, and forgiving portrait of a Midwestern family (from St. Paul this time, rather than the fictional St. Jude). Patty and Walter Berglund find each other early: a pretty jock, focused on the court and a little lost off it, and a stolid budding lawyer, besotted with her and almost burdened by his integrity. They make a family and a life together, and, over time, slowly lose track of each other. Their stories align at times with Big Issues--among them mountaintop removal, war profiteering, and rock'n'roll--and in some ways can't be separated from them, but what you remember most are the characters, whom you grow to love the way families often love each other: not for their charm or goodness, but because they have their reasons, and you know them. --Tom Nissley
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Nine years after winning the National Book Award, Franzen's The Corrections consistently appears on "Best of the Decade" lists and continues to enjoy a popularity that borders on the epochal, so much so that the first question facing Franzen's feverishly awaited follow-up is whether it can find its own voice in its predecessor's shadow. In short: yes, it does, and in a big way. Readers will recognize the strains of suburban tragedy afflicting St. Paul, Minn.'s Walter and Patty Berglund, once-gleaming gentrifiers now marred in the eyes of the community by Patty's increasingly erratic war on the right-wing neighbors with whom her eerily independent and sexually precocious teenage son, Joey, is besot, and, later, "greener than Greenpeace" Walter's well-publicized dealings with the coal industry's efforts to demolish a West Virginia mountaintop. The surprise is that the Berglunds' fall is outlined almost entirely in the novel's first 30 pages, freeing Franzen to delve into Patty's affluent East Coast girlhood, her sexual assault at the hands of a well-connected senior, doomed career as a college basketball star, and the long-running love triangle between Patty, Walter, and Walter's best friend, the budding rock star Richard Katz. By 2004, these combustible elements give rise to a host of modern predicaments: Richard, after a brief peak, is now washed up, living in Jersey City, laboring as a deck builder for Tribeca yuppies, and still eyeing Patty. The ever-scheming Joey gets in over his head with psychotically dedicated high school sweetheart and as a sub-subcontractor in the re-building of postinvasion Iraq. Walter's many moral compromises, which have grown to include shady dealings with Bush-Cheney cronies (not to mention the carnal intentions of his assistant, Lalitha), are taxing him to the breaking point. Patty, meanwhile, has descended into a morass of depression and self-loathing, and is considering breast augmentation when not working on her therapist-recommended autobiography. Franzen pits his excavation of the cracks in the nuclear family's facade against a backdrop of all-American faults and fissures, but where the book stands apart is that, no longer content merely to record the breakdown, Franzen tries to account for his often stridently unlikable characters and find where they (and we) went wrong, arriving at--incredibly--genuine hope.
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Okay, Franzen does deal with freedom as a theme here and there, but the book should probably have been titled Dysfunction, and man, is it full of that in spades.
Structurally, this novel packs more subplots and minor characters into its pages than a Dickens tome. Fortunately, only a few of these become tedious, though some appear irrelevant, at least at the level of detail he presents. He also treats us to some truly idiosyncratic approaches to punctuation and capitalization--especially a liberal use of colons and parenthetical details set off in commas.
And talk about hooks and leaving the reader hanging? Franzen constantly jumps around in time, dropping one set of characters in favor of another, at least for the time being. See, he does return through flashbacks to pick up where he left off to fill us in. “Oh, so that’s what happened,” we say. And in some cases, the flashbacks jump through multiple generations. Yikes.
Further, he relishes triangles, the type that focus on love, sex, lust, and other human preoccupations that can become quite unhappy. He also gives us his takes on place, such as the upper Midwest, New York and its environs, and Washington DC and vicinity—hey, he spends much time in West Virginia and even South America. The characters change, grow, fade, and are re-reviewed and seen in new lights by their fellow characters from time to time as the plot progresses.
Franzen portrays all of his characters kindly, but with terrible flaws. Sometimes he portrays them too kindly. He doesn’t demonize Patty, but she is the foil, fair or not. Walter fairs better, despite his spinelessness. Joey, their son is fleshed out more than his sister Jessica. Walter is allowed to be Walter.
I enjoyed the book, partly because Franzen’s lets Patty explain her actions (although I do not always believe her actions given her past). I know women like Patty, who feel they do not deserve goodness and undermine what goodness they have created. But Franzen is never preachy, psychoanalytic or moralizing. They do what they do and must untangle their lives themselves. One comes to enjoy their company and their sprawling acquaintances.
I recommendit if you enjoy books about people and the small lives we lead.
1) Dip into the pages of Freedom and you'll just be swept along by the story, the characters, the observations of modern American life. The writing is effortless. You don't catch Franzen engaging in literary showmanship -- at least I didn't. (Not that I object to literary showoffs -- see Rushdie, Salman.) Franzen's style serves his sprawling story well.
2) Freedom contains some spectacular set pieces and riffs. One that struck a bit close to home for me: a description of Walter Berglund's self-righteous fury at other drivers.
3) Franzen's decision to attach his story to Bush 2-era politics sometimes seemed artificial and not completely thought out. Like at least one other Amazon reviewer, I didn't buy the notion of a 19-year-old University of Virginia student as arms dealer. Even so, Franzen does make some cutting observations of the American political scene circa 2004.
4) For most of the book, Franzen treats his characters with a detached amusement. Every one of them is deeply flawed, and Franzen's dissection can seem condescending and almost heartless (reminding me of the unflinching way the director Alexander Payne sometimes treats his characters). The Berglunds should have been heartbreaking, not just annoying. Then, in the last, I dunno, 50 pages or so, everything seemed to change. These pages are full of, well, love. So much so that...
5) I choked up when I read the final sentence.
Most recent customer reviews
pride, to humor.