‘Freedom’, Jonathan Franzen


The first time I came across Jonathan Franzen was at 1am in JFK in 2010. My friend and I had a flight at 6am so decided that it would be better to just spend the night in the airport than pay for a hotel room that we would only have to use for half the night. The logic is there. The night itself was still pretty uncomfortable. In the six hours or so I was waiting in the airport – at night it’s a pretty strange experience seeing so many people sleeping on the floor or on their luggage – I read the first few hundred pages of The Corrections. It didn’t particularly grab me, but I was inordinately tired. My friend offered to lend me the book to read at home but I figured that it was too bulky so gave it a miss.

Four years later, I read Franzen’s newer (2010) bulkier (and hardbound) book Freedom. My three main criticisms of the book are as follows: I wasn’t a big fan of Walter’s environmentalist storyline and mostly skimmed these chapters and passages (although I do largely agree with the views about overpopulation. A rock concert still could never make this issue seem ‘cool’ as it seems more misanthropic than most people would care to be. Maybe that’s the point); the word ‘freedom’ or occurrences relating to freedom can sometimes be a bit overdone: they’re getting freedom and that’s the title of the book, how exciting; the book was too heavy and so I couldn’t take it out with me.

For however heavy and irritating I find the weight to be, Franzen is a great writer – this sounds like a dumb criticism but it’s my day off so you can take it. He writes character extremely well. I would expect that most people have a leaning towards preferring story or character. I am a character fancier (it mildly amused me to write it like that so character fancier it is!), and as long as the characters are relateable – that is, you can understand their actions based on the circumstances, rather than thinking ‘she is so like me! I bet she wears Uggs too!’ – and what they are doing is not completely dull (or, for me, political) then I could happily read about their lives forever.

On relateability, I found myself often identifying with Patty too much and as such I really need to work on myself.

Here’s the synopsis of the story from Wikipedia: Freedom follows several members of an American family, the Berglunds, as well as their close friends and lovers, as complex and troubled relationships unfold over many years. The book follows them through the last decades of the twentieth century and concludes near the beginning of the Obama administration.

Normally I’d try and write it myself, but it’s more of a character study so there’s the plot and that’s nice.

The main characters in grammatically poor sentences:

  • Patty: former-athlete, current housewife, depressed but not unremarkable.
  • Walter: smart, working husband, opinionated, passionate, “crazy person”.
  • Richard Katz: Walter’s best friend, object of Patty’s affections, rockstar, bum, attractive.
  • Joey: son, precocious, lucky.
  • Connie: Joey’s wife, moderately intelligent doormat.
  • Jessica: daughter, largely overloooked.
  • Eliza: full blown crazy person and drug addict, later puts on weight.

I am a sucker for imperfect characters and crazy people, so maybe this is why the book really resonated with me. Aside from this, it also serves as a pretty solid commentary about American middle class life, I would imagine, knowing very little about the specifics of American middle class life.

While regarded by some as overlong – it is 560 pages – I found it an impressive read seamlessly chronicling the lives of a family, and one friend, and the number of pages kept me interested enough. Just cool it with the environmental stuff, yeah, I just like drama because I’m a girl and can’t deal with real issues.

8/10 – worth the hype




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