Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
OK, I'm going to weigh in on this book. Let me start out by saying I was not fond of Franzen's first big book, The Corrections. However, Freedom is a brilliantly written and constructed book. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed lots of other books more, but this is a great book too. I listened to the free library audio version of it (Overdrive) and it made housework fly; it's very well read. That being said, I don't understand the mediocre reviews on amazon.com. Our main character is Patty Berglund, but there are two other very alive, prominent characters; Patty's husband Walter, and her son Joey. This book is a family saga of the good old-fashioned variety from the '70s and '80s, but it's very up-to-date with lots of current topics. It's very intimate because the characters are fleshed out so finely that their thoughts, motivations and their very psyches seem to be laid bare. The detail is intense and it's no wonder, since it took Franzen nine years to write this book. And it's so HUMAN, with all it's ridiculousness. When I began listening, I immediately emailed my girlfriend Chris (who had already read this book and liked it) and spelled out one word . . . . Schadenfreude! We start out with Patty as a young mother and then through some slight of hand, we're whisked back to Patty's high school years and college days and then before you know it, Joey's grown up and in trouble, and Walter's trying to save the world and it's all so seamless that I wasn't really conscious of the transitions. My other girlfriend Judy said she just wanted to punch Patty in the face, but then I remembered that Patty had a couple of traumas when she was young (one being the constant belittling by her father and siblings, and some neglect by her mother), and that she also had a clinical depression, so I forgave Patty. And some of Joey's stupid stunts are just universal youthful follies familiar to us all in one form or another. And then Walter kind of stole my heart because he just CARES so much about the important things in life, despite all his bumbling. So then I listened to a few podcasts on itunes and it turns out that the author is quite the conservationist himself, and is passionate about saving wild songbirds in particular, as you can hear on this New Yorker Out Loud podcast. It's almost like Walter IS Jonathan Franzen, in a way. Except for one big difference--Walter is almost ego-less, and Franzen is, well . . . not. And that could account for some of the mediocre reviews, and it definitely accounted in part for the whole Oprah fiasco ten years ago. I just think the reviews for Freedom should be a little better because this is a smart, smart book. Oh, and along the way, you'll find yourself immersed in topics of the day (things like energy and war), and family drama, etc. Anyway, I liked it, and I think it's a wonderful encapsulation of modern-day America. I imagine some young person reading this book 20 years from now and really being able to get a sense of the previous 3 or 4 decades. In the meantime, you can hear several free podcasts like this one, or this one, if you want to delve deeper into the motivations behind this book. Or you can just open the book and go along for the ride.