K's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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's review
Dec 29, 10

really liked it
bookshelves: audiobooks, intense-sad-dark-or-bleak, we-re-all-going-to-hell
Recommended to K by: M

Did Jonathan Franzen deliberately set out to write a novel illustrating the four existential givens and people's struggles with them? If so, he did a great job of it. The four richly drawn main characters of Freedom, Patty, Walter, Richard, and Joey, all fight against death anxiety, meaninglessness, freedom, and isolation in their lives.

Patty, a competitive athlete, meets Walter and Richard in college. Walter is a straight-laced law student who almost immediately falls for Patty and is completely devoted to her; Richard is a wild rocker high in animal magnetism and low in stability. Despite Patty's crush on Richard, she ends up marrying Walter and moving to the suburbs with him, determined to be the perfect suburban housewife to him and mom to Jessica and Joey. Freedom follows the twists and turns of Patty, Walter, Richard, and Joey's lives over the next several decades.

I loved Franzen's rich characterization; though not particularly likeable, these characters were understandable in their decisions even if watching them choose their paths was often akin to watching a car accident in slow motion. Franzen never preached or pointed out the existential nature of his characters' issues and I loved the way this thread subtly ran through the book, somehow lending the everyday events that were described a great deal of meaning.

What I liked less was the often bleak nature of the characters and the consequences they experienced. Sometimes I felt as if Franzen was painfully illustrating to us that humans suck and life sucks, that people blind themselves to all kinds of things and then end up mistreating others and being mistreated in turn. Add to that some stomach-turning graphic descriptions of masturbation and phone sex (and I'm not someone who's usually very offended by these things, but this was really over the top), and you have the deletion of a star from the rating.

But I couldn't take off more than that, no matter how nauseous the book made me at times. It was just too good. I loved the writing. I loved the characterization. I loved the believability. I loved Franzen's ability to pull me in to the world he created. And I loved the fact that, in spite of everything, the characters grew and changed from their imperfect selves to greater maturity by the end of the book, but not to a degree that was unrealistic or unbelievable.

Freedom may not have been a perfect book, but it was certainly involving and gave me quite a bit to chew on. I can't ask for much more than that.
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Reading Progress

12/20/2010
14.0% 3 comments
12/23/2010
45.0% "This book inspired me to add a "We're all going to hell" shelf."
12/28/2010
95.0% "Oh, thank you God! Some character growth! A little redemption! A tiny light at the end of that bleak, bleak tunnel!"
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan Did Jonathan Franzen deliberately set out to write a novel illustrating the four existential givens and people's struggles with them? If so, he did a great job of it...all fight against death anxiety, meaninglessness, freedom, and isolation in their lives.

This is on my infamous list, but it's one I doubt I will actually read unless my book club reads it, but it does look so interesting.

I was particularly struck by your passage above.


message 2: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K Thanks! I hope you read it and review it. I'm curious whether you'll see the book that way as well, or whether it's just in my head.


message 3: by M (new) - rated it 4 stars

M I felt much the same all around, though I was too... overwhelemed and perplexed by the book, I guess, to really articulate it - because I couldn't really tell you what the book's purpose was per se... but I know I was most captivated and I guess in awe of it... You should read Corrections, I actually liked it more in some ways and I am curious what you would think


message 4: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K I read Corrections. It was a long time ago, but believe it or not, I think I liked this one better. I don't know whether it was the writing, or whether I liked the characters better, or the ending, or if it's just that I'm a more mature reader now than I was then.


message 5: by Rachayl (new)

Rachayl Awesome review. I never heard of "existential givens" but it sounds like a great thing for novels to deal with. I think "we're all going to hell" is a great name for a shelf.


message 6: by K (new) - rated it 4 stars

K Thanks, Rochy! I'll try not to lecture, but basically the existential givens are death (we're all going to die; our time on earth is limited, what do we do with that awesome responsibility), freedom (no one is really telling us what to do; how do we decide), isolation (ultimately we're all really alone, even if we try to surround ourselves with people and relationships) and meaninglessness (many things about life seem random; how do we balance acceptance of our lack of control with the need to give some meaning and order to our lives). I don't know whether I explained that well, and I'm sure there are people who could do a better job, but that was a quick off-the-cuff explanation. Anyway, I felt that all the characters in this book, with all the things that happened to them and the decisions they had to make were struggling with these issues in various ways. I don't know whether this was Franzen's intention, but I thought it was really cool how well it fit.

Once I added the "We're all going to hell" shelf, I was surprised (maybe not so much, actually), how many of the books I read fit onto it!


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