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Freedom: A Novel

A book by Jonathan Franzen

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Franzen's wit keeps hope alive in the USA

  • Sep 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 lives from the vantage point of their former neighbors in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Berglunds moved away to Washington two years ago, but, shockingly, "greener than Greenpeace" Walter has been lambasted in the New York Times for conniving with coal companies.

"Then again there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds."

Walter and Patty had arrived in St. Paul as gentrifying pioneers. "In the earliest years when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job..."

Patty was a perky stay-at-home mother of two, Jessica and Joey, with - annoyingly - never a bad word to say about anyone. She had grown up in Westchester, NY, and had come to Minnesota on a basketball scholarship. "One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots." She never went to visit - they never came to St. Paul.

Walter was a "generous, smiling, red-faced 3-M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow." And when the happy family began to unravel, "everybody had the sense, fairly or not, that Walter - his niceness - was somehow to blame. Instead of dragging Joey home by the hair and making him behave himself, instead of knocking Patty over the head with a rock and making her behave herself, he disappeared into his work with the Nature Conservancy...."

Joey, the apple of his mother's eye, had begun sleeping with the decidedly down-market girl next door at some point in early adolescence. Patty, of course, was the absolute last to know and immediately and permanently lost her charming, self-deprecating cool.

By page 26 we know all this. The following sections home in on each of the characters one by one and much is explored, including the events in St. Paul and life before and after.

The first and longest (and best) section belongs to Patty, who titles her therapy-prescribed autobiography, "Mistakes Were Made." Caustically funny, painfully honest, it's written in the third person, and Patty refers to herself as "the autobiographer." (Later, in a separate "Conclusion," she addresses this, saying she has been trying to write in first person. "But she seems doomed, alas, as a writer, to be one of those jocks who refer to themselves in the third person.")

She delves into her unhappy childhood as the only non "Creative" in her political, intellectual, arty Westchester household, her flight to college in the Midwest, her floundering attempts to widen her world and, of course, her smoldering (mutual) attraction to her boyfriend Walter's cynical, indie-rocker, bad-boy best friend, Richard. This section ends with her reluctant move to Washington with Walter: "OK, I can do this. (Was she also conscious of the proximity of the University of Virginia where Joey had just enrolled? Was her grasp of geography maybe not as bad as she's always thought?)"

After an interval with the glowering, talented, bad-boy, Richard Katz ("Grim situations were Katz's niche the way murky water was a carp's."), the book moves on to Joey, who shares his mother's attractiveness and desire to have cake and eat it too. Joey, now at college, thinks maybe old Connie from home isn't cool enough as a girlfriend.

Meanwhile Walter, with his smitten young assistant, is twisting his brain around a convoluted plan to save the West Virginia mountains by letting coal companies slice off their tops.

Though the book takes place before and after 9/11, which affects its characters in background ways, the title plays on the freedom that people have to mess up their lives and the lives of those closest to them, sometimes intentionally, often not. His characters do bad, selfish things - and the more attractive do more of them - but their deeper humanity keeps our hope alive.

Franzen is also really good at poking fun. Liberals, conservatives, business-types, dropouts; they all preen in the spotlight of his wit. And the blacker things are, the more mordant the humor.

"To pass the time, Walter did mental tallies of what had gone wrong in the world in the hours since he'd awakened in the Days Inn. Net population gain: 60,000. New acres of American sprawl: 1,000. Birds killed by domestic and feral cats in the United States: 500,000. Barrels of oil burned worldwide: 12,000,000....The tallies, which he recalculated as the hour grew even later, brought him a strange spiteful satisfaction. There are days so bad that only their worsening, only a descent into an outright orgy of badness, can redeem them."

While this propensity for destruction crops up time and again in more personal ways, threatening a spiral of all-out war that nobody wants and nobody seems empowered to stop, Franzen remains mindful that acts of will do happen, people do swallow their pride, people do forgive.

With its swift, crackling, vibrant prose and flawed, hungry characters (why is it the good - Walter, their solid daughter Jessica - are always so much less interesting?), Freedom captures the tenor of modern American life and the timelessness of human behavior.

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More Freedom: A Novel reviews
review by . September 09, 2010
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 …
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 …
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Lynn Harnett ()
Ranked #182
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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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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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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