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Freedom: A Novel

A book by Jonathan Franzen

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"Freedom" may not be the great American novel, but it is a very good one.

  • Sep 9, 2010
Rating:
+5

I read "Freedom" in two days over the Labor Day weekend. I've structured this review in two parts - impressions that I jotted down while reading it, with a few paragraphs that try to provide a synthesis

Scattered observations:

*Writers probably can't ever ditch certain fundamental aspects of their style. With David Foster Wallace it's the slightly manic, ever-looping association of ideas as his brain connects his current thought to stuff you would never have imagined. Franzen seems unable to dodge the unevenness trap - brilliant for long stretches, interspersed with material that is either preachy, superfluous, or both.

*Less powerful than "The Corrections" because his characters are less universal. Arguably they are all stand-ins for Franzen's own concerns and insecurities. Which are not uninteresting. But neither are they super-interesting.

*Why are they all so uptight? Even when kicking over the traces, nobody seems to be having much fun.

*So much emphasis on life's constraints and limitations. A "great" book/author should leave us with a heightened sense of life's possibilities? (Should it?)

*Despite the superficially broad canvas, at the 400-page mark it feels really, really claustrophobic.

*Clear pluses - writing is smooth; invariably, just when you feel you'll never get out of a particular dull patch, Franzen delivers something that's not just good, but kind of awesome. He can also be very funny.

It's hard to provide a coherent summary. In its favor, "Freedom" is a very enjoyable read, it's structured very smartly (though this is obvious only in retrospect), and benefits from Franzen's ability to nail aspects of the culture with enviable precision. Its mixture of small-scale concerns (the Berglund family dynamics) with larger societal issues is laudable, ambitious, not entirely successful, but certainly a worthy and interesting effort. It does suffer from some of the Franzen tics mentioned above. The variation in quality (some characters are superbly realized, others remain flat), occasional bloating (Franzen's particular hobby-horses relating to the environment and population control get quite a workout), and restriction in focus (to a very narrow section of white, upper middle class intellectuals and their concerns) prevent it from being a great novel. There's also that sense of claustrophobia, bordering on joylessness, that hangs over much of the central part of the book, though this is mitigated somewhat towards the end, which was surprisingly powerful and quite moving.

It is, nonetheless, a very good novel. Franzen cannot be blamed for the extraordinary hype that it has generated, and it shouldn't be held against him. Though I don't think "Freedom" quite matched the brilliance of "The Corrections", it's still one of the best books you're likely to come across this year.



 

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September 16, 2010
thanks for the great perspective on this -- I heard it just got picked to be Oprah's next book club selection, to be announced this week
 
September 10, 2010
Poor "Freedom" was put through the wringer at Amazon with 8 one star, 21 five star and votes for all levels in between. Your review seems to be very level-headed and fair and I've put "Freedom" on my wish list.
 
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More Freedom: A Novel reviews
review by . October 04, 2010
  Freedom has the two-and-a-half-dimensional feel of reality television. I enjoy reading it, but I'm not convinced that any of the characters (especially Patty) is really so good at taking punches. I read this book as I might Greek mythology. Franzen the jovial God, getting kicks out of kicking his characters but never quite believing any of them could ever really exist. I don't believe any of them could exist either, but then again, who cares?    It's definitely …
Quick Tip by . February 09, 2011
I'm just not a Franzen fan. This is my second attempt and I can't find a toehold in his work. Am I the only one??
review by . February 10, 2011
Too many of the pivotal scenes in Freedom have a ridiculousness to them. They are just real enough that the characters seem in earnest, but sufficiently unreal that they seem to be part of a joke. The book is infused with politics, but Freedom is never clear in revealing whether Franzen is trying to parody or to portray “intellectual” lefties who bungle basic economic ideas. Nor can I tell whether he is aiming for reality or satire with his “greedy” righties. The politics …
review by . August 31, 2010
I will avoid the plot review, because so many others seem compelled to summarize, and the repetition becomes tiresome. I enjoyed this novel, and I think you will too. I gave it four stars because it is not perfect, but it is better than most current fiction. Franzen may be a "serious" writer, but he is also highly readable, with an interesting story that can be enjoyed for itself alone, absent any considerations of literary aspirations.    This is a big, rambling tale of modern …
review by . October 19, 2010
   Well remembered for his masterful readings of such titles as "Water For Elephants" and "The Second Horseman," David Ledoux gives a praiseworthy narration of FREEDOM, a story in which he's required to portray many characters. As has been said, "His voice inhabits the characters' psyches, sharing their loves, fears, and anxieties. Ledoux gives a vibrant performance, imbuing each character with a unique voice and tone." How true!     The winner of two AudioFile Earphones …
review by . September 16, 2010
Franzen's long-awaited fourth novel - it's been nine years since his National Book Award winning The Corrections - stands up to the anticipation. Mining similar territory - educated middle-class dysfunctional families - at pretty much the same length, Franzen uses his acerbic wit, unsparing insight, and deep sympathy to draw the reader into the fraught lives of his characters.    The book opens with an introductory portrait of the Berglunds, Patty and Walter; a summation of their …
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"Freedom"
is Oprah Winfrey's 64th pick for September and places Franzen in a special category: The rare author to have more than one book in her club, the first being "The Corrections" back in 2001. 

Amazon Best of the Month, August 2010: "The awful thing about life is this:" says Octave to the Marquis in Renoir'sRules 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.Freedomis 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 ...
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Details

ISBN-10: 0374158460
ISBN-13: 978-0374158460
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: August 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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