Book Review: “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

Do you listen to National Public Radio? Do you recycle? Contribute to environmental causes? Shop at Whole Foods? Skew your dining towards farm-to-table restaurants? Do you watch “The Daily Show” and scoff at Fox News?

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, you might recognize reflections of yourself in Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel “Freedom”.  And these reflections aren’t flattering at all.  Franzen’s tale follows the disintegration of an upper middle class family that by all outward appearances (such as those described above) should be “the good guys” – and yet, the Berglunds prove to be as self-absorbed and morally compromised a clan as you might find.

The story follows Walter and Patty Berglund – as they meet and marry soon after college in the 70s and into their early middle age.  The Berglunds also are in interdependent orbit with Walter’s best friend, the wanting-to-be-iconoclastic-but-merely-ends-up-stereotypical musician, Richard Katz.  Their relationships are complicated: Walter and Richard really do have a bond, but yet each measures himself against the other.  Early on, Patty nearly moves to New York with Richard, but instead opts (some might argue “settles) for the stable, “nice guy” Walter.

It is this story – the Walter-Patty-Richard dance over decades – that drives the narrative and where Franzen gets the most emotional payoff and insight into the approaching-middle-age “is this all there is?” mid-life crisis – the slow wall-building that leads to a passive aggressive détente masquerading as a happy marriage.  Good times.

 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Unfortunately, the story also follows that of the Berglund’s ambitious, selfish, Gen-X son Joey who is maybe the most unlikeable character I’ve come across in years.  He is not only unlikeable, but worse yet he is unbelievable (no one would put up with his shit. Sorry).  It’s too bad, too, because Joey’s story – emblematic of the current generational malaise – should have been powerful, but ended up being an obviously false prop in an otherwise good production.

 

The idea of freedom is of course an American touchstone and reverberates throughout in the main characters’ yearnings – the freedom to walk away, the freedom to say and do what you want, the freedom to hate thy neighbor, the freedom to try and find love wherever you can, the freedom to live in peace and quiet – which are juxtaposed against the self- and society-imposed constrictions that make such freedoms seem so elusive.

“Freedom” is an ambitious work that takes on big topics: love, family, loyalty, jealousy, redemption, and politics (in that arena, Franzen can’t seem to write anything but a cookie-cutter depthless conservative – another missed opportunity for real impact). Is it a great book? No — I think it’s too flawed to be considered great, but it should engender great and spirited discussions among those that have read it.

Three stars out of five.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

  1. NPR- check!
    Recycling-check!
    Environmental causes-um, no, as I have no money to contribute.
    Whole Foods-see above.
    Localized restaurants-see above.
    Daily Show-sometimes: I don’t watch TV that much.
    Jonathan Franzen-meh: I didn’t like The Corrections that much, especially after someone said I reminded her of the mother who only wanted her family together for Christmas.

    But seriously, I wonder how Franzen can write about such unpleasant characters all the time. When Oprah chose The Corrections for her book club, I laughed because she thought the book was yet another dysfunctional family story. Which it is, but she missed the point: Franzen is after a particular class of people, upper middle class, highly educated, artsy, and incapable of self-reflection, though very fond of regarding their own reflections, which they see as essentially good and deserving of admiration or reward.

    (That Franzen agreed to appear on Oprah’s show and proceeded to squirm and mug through the interview reflected a great deal about himself, too. “I’m really above all this, but I enjoy the attention.”)

    I’ll think about reading this book. I feel like the past week and a half have been polarizing and unpleasant, so it’s hard to rev up the engines for a book that sounds equally divisive. It does sound like a great choice for a book club. (Not Oprah’s, however.)

    • HG — I’ve never read “The Corrections” but I agree wholeheartedly that his characters are “a particular class of people, upper middle class, highly educated, artsy, and incapable of self-reflection, though very fond of regarding their own reflections, which they see as essentially good and deserving of admiration or reward” — dead on!!! Franzen clearly can’t stand neocons, he doesn’t even imbue them with personalities worth exploring, but he can’t stand “elitist” liberals either — and so you’re left wondering if he likes anyone.

  2. NPR- check!
    Recycling-check!
    Environmental causes-I grew up on and live on an organic family farm–want to give me money?
    Whole Foods-see above.
    Localized restaurants-see above.
    Daily Show-I have seen about 5 minutes of it once; I watch between 1-3 hours of TV / week
    Jonathan Franzen-like most fiction, I’ve not ready any, preferring non-fic. That said, I googled him and turns out he was raised in Webster Groves (where I graduated from uni!). Guess that’s why his name was familiar even with my complete lack of pop culture knowledge.

    As for what the checklist may mean about me, I just did that personal DNA. You can tell me if it’s a fit. I’d love to see if what it says about you fits, too!

  3. Oh yes, thats me. Except for the measuring myself against others. Each time I get involved in that…I become rather miserable. BUT…one never really knows. I thnk I am really very self absorbed. I may have to pick this up….in a way I do love it. I’ve found everyone at work claims to shop at Target and Publix, the more “non-evil stores” in our area…we dont have trader joes or anything like that. But yet…if I drop by Wal-Mart for something that they have… (I like to buy the matchbox cars for treats for kids at work, and they are only 75 cents there…) I tend to run into the Publix shoppers stocking up on cheaper product!

  4. Nice review. I have this on my to-read list.

    I do fit all of those things, except for Jon Stewart, mainly because I don’t have cable. :) Sometimes, though, it’s a bit exhausting to keep up with all the things I “should” be doing so I’ve stopped worrying so much about everything.

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