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Freedom – Book Review

“It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to. – from Freedom, page 361 –

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Freedom doesn’t shy away from the politically incorrect; it doesn’t mince words; it certainly doesn’t extol the virtues of freedom. Instead, this is a novel which takes a hard, often cynical look, at middle America.

Patty and Walter Berglund are in many ways the typical middle-American couple. They live in the suburbs and have exactly two children (one boy and one girl). Patty becomes the traditional stay at home mom, and Walter is a successful environmental lawyer. But, despite the outside wrappings, this is a couple whose lives are far from perfect. Joey, their son, starts having sex early and then moves next door to live with his obsessed girlfriend; Walter’s best friend from college is a rock star whose propensity to disrespect women is actually an attractant rather than a repellent for Patty; and when Walter takes a job working with a big coal company whose idea of preservation first involves blowing the tops off of pristine mountains…all bets are suddenly off.

Freedom is a huge, sprawling book that follows the lives of the Berglunds and their closest friends and relatives  for decades. Along the way there is humor, cynicism, love, betrayal, and the consequences of too much freedom. Franzen explores adultery, rape, teenage lust, environmental catastrophe, greed, and political shallowness. It all adds up to a rather negative, albeit amusing, look at contemporary America – especially that of parenting and marriage.

This was my first Franzen novel, and I was impressed by his characterizations and impeccable skill at the craft of writing. At times I found myself laughing out loud at Franzen’s sardonic sense of humor; but mostly I found myself marveling at the genius of his prose. Freedom is not a light read. It is a rather negative view of the American way of life – not all I agreed with, but many times the truth of the novel was hard to deny. The characters in this novel are hardly likable. Instead, they are flawed and use their freedom to mess up their lives and the lives of those they love. Despite not really liking any of the characters, I did end up liking the book.

Since finishing this novel, I’ve read some wildly disparate reviews of it. Some people love it; others hate it; some never finished it…and I see where not everyone will connect to Freedom. On the other hand, once in a long time a novel comes along which is truly an “American” novel from start to finish. I think Freedom fits the bill. Despite painting America with a negative brush, Franzen also provides an interesting perspective on what life is like in the 21st century. Whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, Freedom is an entertaining read.

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy literary fiction.

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11 Comments

  1. November 19, 2010    

    Nice review, even though it confirms my lack of desire to read it! I just have a problem when none of the characters in a book are likable! I know it’s more like “real life,” but I guess I like a bit of fairy tale! :–)

  2. November 19, 2010    

    I just won an audio version of this book and I’m really excited about it. It’s huge, but it will be great for a car trip. I’m glad to see you enjoyed it so much.

  3. November 19, 2010    

    This is one that I will probably make time for next year. I loved your thoughts on this one.

  4. Pam Pam
    November 20, 2010    

    I can’t WAIT to read this! I love the cover and LOVED your review. I love readong the one star review of off beat, subversive, critical-lens views. Thanks for such a great review. :O)

  5. November 20, 2010    

    Excellent review! I loved The Corrections and can’t wait to read this.

  6. November 20, 2010    

    Nice review! An interesting take on the book. I guess it’s possible to like a book despite having unlikeable characters. I went in for about 200 pages and got too frustrated with it to continue. Oh well…

  7. November 20, 2010    

    Your review definitely gives me a better idea of what to expect if I read this book.

  8. November 20, 2010    

    Nice review. I’ve been on the fence about this book. It’s definitely not a “must read” for me, however I am curious about it. Honestly, the mixed reviews and the unlikeable characters have turned me off from it. But, after reading your review, maybe I should think about reading it sometime next year.

  9. November 20, 2010    

    After loving The Corrections, I just had to buy this book, and am hoping to read it soon. Franzen is an amazing author who manages to get his character just right, and I am really looking forward to reading this one. I am glad to hear you liked it, even if you didn’t really like the characters.

  10. Lu Lu
    November 25, 2010    

    I just finished this one and I absolutely loved it. No, I too didn’t agree with everything, but I bet Walter would! 😉 I’m really looking forward to reading the Corrections.

  11. November 28, 2010    

    Rhaosody: LOL! I know what you mean – I was surprised I liked this so well given how distasteful any of the characters were!

    Kathy: I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of it!

    Staci: Thanks – I actually think I would have read it more quickly if I had not been traveling when I started it.

    Pam: I hope you’ll love it as I did! What is”off beat, subversive, critical-lens views”?

    JoAnn: I hear if you love Corrections, you’ll love this one…hope that holds true for you!

    Teacher/Learner: Sorry to hear you couldn’t finish this one…I understand you are not alone there!

    Alyce: Oh good (I think!)

    Shonda: I can see where readers might not be excited about this book given the varied reviews…but I (obviously) think you should give it a try and make up your own mind!

    Zibilee: Oh, I will really like to see what you think!

    Lu: Glad to hear you agree! And I too want to read the Corrections now!

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