Lori's Reviews > Freedom

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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Aug 22, 2010

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bookshelves: fiction
Read from April 18 to May 06, 2011

Jonathan Franzen has become the Important Author of the early 21st century. As a Time Magazine cover boy he will be considered a Representative of Our Times. I can easily imagine college students being assigned The Corrections or Freedom in the same way that I read Babbitt or The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or Rabbit, Run. This makes Franzen difficult for me to write about. He has become an interpreter of our times for future audiences. I am already beginning to regard him as such rather than as just another guy who writes rather good stories about rather flawed people.

It is probably not very original of me, but I cannot help but parallel Franzen with Sinclair Lewis. To me, they are two matching bookends on either end of the 20th century. Both midwesterners with a penchant for antagonizing people (recall the Oprah kerfuffle with Franzen and compare that to Lewis' habit of insulting audiences and mores back in the 1920s)--their literary efforts make somewhat mean spirited sport of Everyman. While Sinclair Lewis, known by his contemporaries as The National Castigator, satirized the lesser qualities of the nascent middle class that was beginning to rise up in the 1920s, Franzen takes on George Babbitt's great grandchildren in the declining middle class of our era.

And I like it!

I am a fan of Sinclair Lewis and I enjoy Franzen. In my opinion they both have insight into their respective eras and give the reader well drawn Types who represent various faults. I enjoy Franzen's writing. But I always get the same feeling when I read him that I used to get when I read a book for a lit class in college. Perhaps I try to read the book too closely for symbolism or metaphor. This always makes me a more self conscious reader (and then a more self conscious reviewer.) And it mitigates the pleasure just a tiny little bit.

In Freedom, Franzen returns to the midwest as the setting for most of the ennui and turmoil that, at turns, plague the Berglund family. This time the action occurs mainly in Minnesota. Walter and Patty Berglund met in college through a mutual connection with the Outsider character from New York/Jersey City...indie rocker, Richard Katz. The character of Katz weaves in and out of the story to stir up the placid waters of the Berglund's Minnesota Nice life. The Berglunds of course, are not immune from weaknesses and Issues, even without the involvement of Katz. Patty is a troubled character who openly admits to the reader that she is not a nice person. Walter is an almost too good to be true idealist-turned-crank. Their children, Joey and Jessica, reap the mixed blessings/curses of being Berglund children. Their story unfolds over a period of three decades. It is the story of a family and how the family responds to life in our Era and also to their own personal emotional legacies. In Franzen's world...much like in the real one...if you scratch the surface of a outwardly functional and successful person, you often uncover a roiling mass of neuroses, depression, anxiety and shame.

As in The Corrections, the main focus of the plot is on the minutely complicated relationships between people. Franzen is wonderful at explicating how a person's reaction to a situation decades in the past can reverberate and taint connections in the present. People have very long memories. Our ability to pick at emotional sores is almost never ending. The endless dialogue of passive aggressive nit picking and grudge holding that runs through our minds is laid out in the prose Franzen puts on the page. The reader recognizes (often less flattering) aspects of people he knows in Franzen's characters. More self aware readers will squirm as they recognize themselves.

Franzen's fans will appreciate Freedom. It is a good book written very much in the style of the Corrections. If you are one of the very few readers who have not yet tried Jonathan Franzen, I would highly recommend his work for readers who enjoy character driven stories and a psychological approach to plot development. The external action is never separated from the interior dialogues of the characters. Franzen is a master at laying out motivation and presenting realistic reactions. Without inflicting spoilers, I would suggest that the story's end would have felt stronger to me if things had gone differently...or if the action in the book would have stopped a bit sooner. Franzen had a choice and he chose the neater of the two. In this case, I would have gone a bit darker and sloppier.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Elyse Lori, You write wonderful reviews! I enjoy reading what you have to say: (thanks for the time you take posting them).

With *Freedom*...several of my friends (who loved "The Corrections), were not crazy about "Freedom". I liked it---
AND.........I liked his ending...(I understood his purpose: I think anyway).
One of my friends HATED the ending---(but then again---I think the topic might have been 'too' close to home for her).

Happy Mothers Day ....to ALL the Woman ---and Men ---in the world who give to others!


Lori Thanks, Elyse.

I am glad you enjoy the reviews I post. I enjoy learning about what everyone else is reading, too. My 'to read' list just keeps getting longer (If only my time to read grew along with the list!)

We have read several books in my book group, lately, where most of us have enjoyed about 95% of the book and then felt like the author lost it a little bit at the very end. It leads me to believe that 'the big finish' is one of the most challenging aspects of writing a book.

In the case of Freedom, I was happy for the characters. But, Franzen does dark/selfish/spite so well! I am tempted, with him, to wallow in the more negative end of the emotional spectrum.


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