I think I must be the only literate human being alive who has not read anything by Jonathan Franzen. This dilemma has now been solved thanks to a copy of Freedom that has been sitting on my shelves for well over a year. Franzen appears to have a reputation of either love him or hate him. The feelings toward the author himself appear to eclipse his works, as there has been much debate on whether his works are truly modern classics or just victims of too much hype. There was also the controversy regarding Franzen’s concerns for having his novel appear as part of Oprah’s book club due to possibly alienating his male readership. As a male reader, I have to say that it was a slow warming period leading to finding a new favorite author.
Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds-Walter and Patty and their two children. They represent your basic all-American middle class family. Franzen performs a very neat trick at the beginning of the novel by giving us an overview of the Berglunds through the eyes of one of their neighbors. Then you discover that these yuppies and their offspring are the protagonists of this novel. The title refers to the concept of “freedom” both as it applies to our civil liberties as Americans as well as the personal freedoms that shape our individual identities. This allows us to connect the novel both to the larger concepts like world politics, saving the environment, and terrorism in addition to personal tragedies such as the curve balls that get thrown in life’s way.
I have to admit when I started this novel, I did not expect to become as engaged as I did with it. My decision to read it was more based on a sense of duty and the need to keep up with my fellow book nerds. As I started reading it though, something extraordinary happened. I became a complete addict on this book, sacrificing plenty of work breaks and precious hours of sleep to see what happens to the Berglunds. I should completely hate this family for so many reasons, yet I feel compelled to continue reading. Then, I realize the unthinkable-I actually like these characters and want them to find happiness in whatever form that needs to be. Franzen writes with a lot of depth, and he is a magician in the sense that he gets you hooked without even realizing until later that you were hooked.
Franzen does well in shifting the narrative back and forth among the Berglunds, but I felt like Franzen struggled some with the voice of Patty. Her story is told through a first-person perspective as a journal assignment from her therapist. However, Franzen’s voice often sounded the same to me as the other chapters. The story was engrossing enough for me to overlook this flaw.
As I was engrossed in this family epic, I found myself thinking about my own family. I have been involved in some of my own family drama this past year with all the glorious feelings that it entails (guilt, anger, bitterness, forgiveness). I will definitely not forget my first Franzen experience due to where I was in my own life at the time of reading this novel. The highest compliment I can give to a writer is in the ability to get your audience to apply its themes to your own life. Well, congratulations Franzen because you sold me. I actually just purchased The Corrections a few days ago and look forward to giving you another go.
“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.”