Jessica's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Mar 08, 12

bookshelves: adult-fiction
Read from January 03 to March 08, 2012

I feel very proud of myself for pushing through Freedom--though it took me more than two months! Normally, when I'm not really enjoying a book, I stop about 50 pages in, but lately I've been pushing myself to read the whole thing. Also, even though I didn't love the characters or even the story, from an English major's perspective, I really did like Freedom--I can't deny that Jonathan Franzen is an amazing writer, and I could see myself writing so many papers, forming so many theses about the characters, their motivations, the settings, themes, etc. In short, I could appreciate that it was good, but I still didn't love it.

Like The Corrections, which was heralded as the next "Great American Novel," and became infamous for sparking a feud between Franzen and Oprah Winfrey when she named it a part of her book club, which he referred to as "schmaltzy," Freedom is an indictment of American suburbia, and American ideals of marriage and family. (Oprah and Franzen made up when she named Freedom, Franzen's follow-up to The Corrections, part of her book club.) The story follows the Berglund family of St. Paul, MN: Walter, the idealistic lawyer, adoringly in love with his young wife, Patty, a former college basketball star, and their two children, Joey and Jessica. The Berglunds arrive in their St. Paul neighborhood when it is still up-and-coming, and lead the gentrification until it is nearly unrecognizable. They are the family that others envy, for their talented children, Patty's hospitality and good cooking, and Walter's charisma and strong beliefs.

Then the Berglunds start to fall apart. Walter takes a job working for an environmentalist project that's tied to big coal. Joey becomes sexually involved with the neighbors' (disliked by Patty for being trashy and Republican) daughter, Connie, and eventually moves in with them. And Joey's rejection of her drives Patty to depression, alcoholism, and lack of sexual interest in Walter. Then there's Richard Katz, Walter and Patty's best friend, an erstwhile musician with a a cult following. While his love for the Berglunds draws them together, his underlying 20+ years of sexual tension with Patty may be a stepping stone in their undoing. The narrative shifts between these four characters (Jessica is apparently not deemed interesting enough, and is more of a tertiary character), at different points in their lives: Walter's childhood, Joey's college years, Richard's comeback.

About 200 pages in, a lightbulb went off for me, when I realized what the title "Freedom" really meant. As a theme, it raises a lot of questions. Is the vast amount of freedom in America, that is one of our country's greatest ideals, all that it's cracked up to be? In particular, sexual freedom, our ability to engage sexually with whoever we want, despite any legal or emotional contracts we might have made, creates a frighteningly open set of possibilities. Also, there's American freedom, which leads Joey to make a fortune selling military car parts in Iraq. As Joey and Patty begin to crush Walter's ideals, he becomes more and more unhinged, turning from an optimist to a miserable old crank. There's personal freedom and universal freedom, and Walter ironically seeks to limit others, by founding a movement to limit human population growth, while having two children of his own. The characters would do well to heed the engraved message at Jessica's East Coast college: "Use Well Thy Freedom."

The characters in Freedom are extremely unlikable, and strong, compelling characters are the #1 thing that draws me into a book. However, when I hear terms like "tour de force" and "masterpiece" used to describe Freedom, I wouldn't necessarily disagree. Freedom is a mine rich with themes, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's taught in university literature classes in the future.
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01/03/2012 page 56
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