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Freedom: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club) Paperback – September 27, 2011
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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
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Have you ever had a close friend tell you a long over-complicated piece of gossip about one of THEIR acquaintances? And afterwards you're amused, but also kind of wondering why you just had to sit through that long conversation when you didn't even know or care about anyone involved? Well, that's exactly what reading this book was like - except instead of a short conversation it's a 600 page novel. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.
I don't mind admitting that I, too, caught the fever. I started reading The Corrections on a plane to Los Angeles at the beginning of 2011, and by the time I finished it I had already started formulating plans to get my own family together for Christmas for the first time in more than a decade. While I found Franzen's style unattractive and pretentious, there was something real and identifiable about his characters that won me over. The author's apparent cruelty I saw as a necessary detachment on Franzen's part, important to shading the moral grays that turned each of the Lamberts into well-rounded, believable characters. As a consequence, I also went back and read his first two novels, which were solid enough.
It was with a sense of anticipation, then, that I began reading Freedom a few days ago. I was patient. I was hopeful. As I got deeper into the novel, however, there was no getting around the looming conclusion: Freedom was downright awful. By the time I reached the three-hundred page mark, just over halfway, finishing the book really did feel like a prison sentence. Dutifully, I served my time.
So what can account for this spectacular failure? How can Franzen strike such a chord with The Corrections and then come across as so utterly tone-deaf in Freedom?
Before recounting its shortcomings, I should first say what it is that I liked about Freedom. After all, I did not expect it to be an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning, and it certainly did not feel that it was going to be while reading the initial stages of the story. Other reviewers have complained that the central characters of Patty and Walter were too dull to carry the story, a view with which I heartily disagree. Although Patty's stilted "autobiography" (which Franzen, for no good reason, writes in a third-person voice that is indistinguishable from the rest of the narrative) is an incredibly clumsy approach for an established novelist, I found Franzen's depiction of their tepid romance and marriage, especially the little details of the ways in which they repeatedly hurt and betray each other, to be painfully real. This element of insight in Franzen's writing is what made The Corrections so successful, this feeling that while reading his novel you are also undergoing a painful but necessary session of emotional therapy.
Apart from the Berglund's disintegrating marriage, however, there was little to admire about Freedom. What made the early pages of the novel interesting was Franzen's critique of the ways in which human beings delude themselves. Thus, for instance, we witness Patty being led astray by her drug-addicted, emotionally manipulative college friend Eliza, who preys on Patty's guilt and lack of esteem in order control the latter's life. Similar spirals of reactive (should I say "corrective"?) behavior are set up throughout, from Joey's reaction to his parents to Patty's desire for Richard.
The novel thus provides the reader with a litany of self-destructive, guilt-ridden, passive characters - a lot like The Corrections, you might say, but here is the strange thing. Whereas Franzen, in the early stages of the novel, highlights the negative effects that flow from the weakness and endless self-pity that motivate his characters, by the second half of the novel he attempts to transform these same horrible qualities into virtues. Walter, in particular, is supposedly redeemed by the contention that his inherited negativity gives his life "meaning." Despite the utter betrayal of his own ethical standards and his staggeringly grandiose sense of self-righteousness, Walter is excused, in the narrator's eyes, because he is a "nice man." Even Walter's loser brother, Mitch, a worthless drunk who shirks all responsibility for his five children, is transformed into a Thoreau-like hero by the end, living peacefully by a lake and only working when he has to. It's a bizarre and bewildering moral u-turn that Franzen takes, down a path where I simply cannot follow him.
My increasing disillusionment with the novel as I was reading it only served to highlight other technical flaws that I might otherwise have been willing to overlook. I have already mentioned my dislike for Franzen's style in his earlier works, but in Freedom this pretentiousness reaches a level that is simply unbearable. Franzen's frantic need to provide in-depth descriptions of inane, unnecessary details and endless name-dropping was too much. Consider, for instance, this ridiculous sentence from the novel's epilogue (by which point I was at the end of my patience) in which Franzen makes a horrible contrast between the artificiality of the social networking site Twitter to the authenticity of birds in nature:
"There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many." (p.546)
To make matters worse, there are numerous other occasions where Franzen not only constructs hopelessly unwieldy metaphors, but also proceeds to insult the reader's intelligence by explaining the symbolism: he makes a lazy parallel, for instance, between Jenna's manipulation of Joey and the dubious loyalty shown to him by his right-wing political connections (p.401); the comparison of Patty's split from Richard to America's withdrawal from Vietnam (p.510); and, worst of all, the analogy between Joey's grotesque search through his own feces for his wedding ring to his arms deal in South America, the difference being that "there was no gold ring hidden in this particular pile of s***" (p.441). No, indeed, there was not.
When I started reading Freedom, I thought I had some idea, based on my reading of his earlier novels, of what Franzen was setting out to achieve. What is most disappointing about Freedom is not that it is a failure, but that it is a betrayal of the kind of unrelenting emotional honesty that I once thought I detected in Franzen's work. A great writer is one who invites you to resist them and wins you over anyway, which is what happened to me with The Corrections. Freedom, by contrast, seems like a miscalculated attempt to preach to a particular section of the choir, and surely Franzen, who early on in the novel takes Walter to task for being unattractive precisely because he is so passively agreeable, should have understood this same dynamic in his readers.
The characters are relentlessly self-involved and unlikeable to the point of being tiresome. But that didn’t bother me quite so much as some of the strange, jarring leaps in character development. An under-confident but basically happy young wife becomes a bitter, frustrated harridan seemingly overnight. A man who was a stable, steady pillar of the community for forty-odd years morphs into a ranting, environmentalist crank. A sullen, cruel young boyfriend transforms into an almost sickeningly model husband. Some creaky plot engineering attempts to account for these changes, but often it doesn’t convince.
The story of the main sexual triangle is gripping – it’s the backbone of the book and it’s what kept me reading. But it’s choked by a thicket of diversionary subplots with a B-movie flavour. There’s some savage humour, and a lot of candid zooming-in on bodily functions that’s not for the faint-hearted but that can be funny and sometimes insightful. Worth reading overall, imo, but a strong edit could have made a vast improvement.