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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
All right, here goes nothing: I’ve tweeted, blogged, posted, and finally I’ve gone the distance to post my formal review of mega-novel “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. The hype of this book is exemplary; including endorsements from a high profile celebrity, reportedly our highest elected official, and lots of smart people in the media that are so kind to tell us which books to read. I don’t mind the smart people, but when they say this author can predict the future, that’s a bit much. BTW, if you’re worried about spoilers, then you may not want to read this tome-synopsis. Feel free to experience this load of fiction on your own. For any that question my “place” as a new author of genre self published fiction to review this mainstream bestseller, I’ll give a gentle reminder that I’m not reviewing this as a writer. I purchased this novel; which promotes me to a member of Franzen’s audience. The readers decide.
The novel begins with the long, detailed description of middle-class married couple Patty and Walter Berglund. The earlier part of the novel focuses largely on Patty’s life. She is the daughter of a very rich family with Democrat party connections; her mother is into politics and her father gets obnoxious when he drinks too much. During a party, Patty gets date-raped and is understandably upset for many years following the incident, especially when her parents didn’t agree to press charges because Patty and her assailant were under the influence of alcohol. Aside that, she is miserable for reasons not easily understood. Later on, there’s reminiscence with an ‘autobiographer’ about Patty’s youth, when she was a star basketball player, attended college, had a druggie amoral friend, met “cool guy” Richard Katz, and meets Walter, who becomes her husband following a weird road trip she made with Richard Katz and had no intimate relations with him at the time.
Somewhere later, the story moves to Walter, about his background, coming from a poor family, alcoholic father, deadbeat brothers, and a hard-working mother. Walter is described as “wanting to be the good guy” and his roommate is Richard Katz. Though having some political ideas that his friends don’t take seriously, Walter graduates from college and weds Patty.
The Berglunds have two children, Joey and Jessica. Joey begins an intimate relationship with Connie, the neighbor’s daughter since adolescence. Following their completion of high school and entry into college, the marriage of Patty and Walter begins to crumble; as Patty has chronic depression and alcohol use, and Walter has become a zealot in the fight for the bird cerulean warbler and against overpopulation. He befriends his twenty something assistant of Asian-Indian descent, who is his disciple and his latter love interest.
Somewhere later, the novel moves to Joey, who becomes enamored with his college roommate’s sister, while keeping his relationship with Connie, who loves him unconditionally. They elope but keep their marriage secret. Joey takes advantage of the opportunity to take a trip with the girl he has a crush on, but since it didn’t go as expected, he resumed his relationship with Connie and later Walter and Patty are informed. Jessica is mentioned on-and-off as the child with no major hang-ups, did well in school, became a good youthful Democrat, but didn’t do as well after college as Joey, a Republican, who got a large salary by working as little as possible and making shady business deals.
Walter and Patty re-locate to Washington, DC, where Walter earns a nice salary directing a trust to save the endangered avian the cerulean warbler. Patty finally gets a job for the first time in her life in a gym, and though she is wary of Walter’s young assistant, she does not leave him. Richard Katz re-enters their life, and when Richard revealed to Walter that he and Patty had been intimate in the past, Walter throws Patty out and begins his romance with his assistant. Patty lives with Richard for a while, then moves to New York City and becomes independent.
Walter’s obsession with the warbler leads him to speak to groups, make deals with coal companies, and sees his ideals get embraced by his assistant, who wants a tubal ligation because he’s convinced her so well of the problem of world overpopulation. Later Walter’s bird trust falls apart, and he travels the US in a van with his new lover (his assistant). They have a disagreement because Walter wants to return to an old lake house left by his mother, and she travels on to West Virginia for a Woodstock-type program that ends tragically. Walter’s efforts to change the world to the manner he sees fit grinds to a halt.
When Patty’s father dies, more details about her family and how they divide the inheritance comes up, and somewhere, details of Walter’s grandparents that died in a car accident are explained. Walter holds up in the lake house and is considered by his neighbors to be a loner and a weirdo. Patty finally visits him six years after their separation, and neither filed for divorce. After working out their problems, they re-locate to New York and establish relationships with their family. Oh, and the autobiographer later gets older and menopausal.
This is not a work of literature that reads smoothly; actually it’s been the most labored read I’ve done since the novella “Heart of Darkness.” The beginning narrates a story of a middle-class American family, with each member with their own detailed personalities, hang-ups, and obsessions. I didn’t really dislike the characters, but their stories are told in a negative viewpoint of the author. So what, a woman that just wanted to be a stay at home Mom has a low self-esteem? Does that make her evil? No. She’s whiny, but matures later on, and to me she’s no more self- obsessed than most people. Walter is a hard-working man who strives for integrity, which is admirable. His political zealously gets strange, as worked so hard to take care of his family, but looks upon others with disdain because they are poor and have children. If people would just think like him, then the world would have no problems. Well, OK, he’s eccentric, but not someone I’d go out of my way to dislike. The kids Joey and Jessica are different brands of generation X; one is lazy but clever enough to get ahead early in life, and the other is idealistic and doesn’t gain the same degree of financial independence. Neither of these kids is horrific, some infidelity seen in young people is not overly surprising. Richard Katz, the successful rock star-gone-has been is mentioned in many reviews of this book. Many readers dislike him, but to me he is straightforward, doesn’t give love to others, and doesn’t pretend to, belief in himself and nothing else, so well, what you see is what you get. I didn’t dislike Richard; I just felt the same indifference to him that he showed everyone else.
But let’s not leave out the most important character of this novel, pictured on the book’s cover: the cerulean warbler. Now I like pretty blue birds as much as the next person; I don’t go out of my way to harm birds, albeit if one relieves itself on my car, I’m not appreciative. I’m also a Hitchcock fan and appreciate “too much of a good thing” in the famous film “The Birds.” This, to me, is where the author chops up the story into huge icebergs. The politics seem to be thrown in and do not glide with the book as a whole. In his interviews I watched, he expressed to my dismay that the environmental issues were not satire; for if it had been, I’d have called it clever. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about these issues, but to me it’s awkward in his prose. It’s unfortunate that this author’s passion actually weakens instead of strengthening the novel. If he had just stayed on message, about the family’s life and experiences, and weaved the political issues into the story with subtlety instead of “in your face” it may have made more sense. This is where Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road” beats “Freedom” hands down. If not for that, this would be an interesting parallel; to have “Freedom” be the “suburban-esque” novel with a positive message in lieu of the negative message of “Revolutionary Road.”
So, my final verdict of “Freedom” is three stars. Most of his reviews are one-two or four-five. There’s no doubt this author can write, and just ask him in an interview, he’ll tell you. I’ll tell you there’s no way an editor would let me get away with that many adverbs and run-on sentences; but when one’s earned a National Book Award, I suppose he’s earned the right to make the manuscript as laborious to read as possible. What’s good about this book is the positive note in which it ends.
Mr. Franzen, congratulations on “Freedom.” I understand it’s not easy to follow-up an award-winning piece “The Corrections,” which I’d like to read some day. I think you’re a good writer, and possibly a great writer. With this particular book, you settled for good instead of great. If the ghost of Richard Yates visits you, say hi to him, as he remains the master storyteller of the American suburban family.
Reviewer: C.C. Cole