Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel Freedom doesn’t shy away from the politically incorrect; it doesn’t mince words; it certainly doesn’t extol the virtues of freedom. Instead, this is a novel which takes a hard, often cynical look, at middle America.
Patty and Walter Berglund are in many ways the typical middle-American couple. They live in the suburbs and have exactly two children (one boy and one girl). Patty becomes the traditional stay at home mom, and Walter is a successful environmental lawyer. But, despite the outside wrappings, this is a couple whose lives are far from perfect. Joey, their son, starts having sex early and then moves next door to live with his obsessed girlfriend; Walter’s best friend from college is a rock star whose propensity to disrespect women is actually an attractant rather than a repellent for Patty; and when Walter takes a job working with a big coal company whose idea of preservation first involves blowing the tops off of pristine mountains…all bets are suddenly off.
Freedom is a huge, sprawling book that follows the lives of the Berglunds and their closest friends and relatives for decades. Along the way there is humor, cynicism, love, betrayal, and the consequences of too much freedom. Franzen explores adultery, rape, teenage lust, environmental catastrophe, greed, and political shallowness. It all adds up to a rather negative, albeit amusing, look at contemporary America – especially that of parenting and marriage.
This was my first Franzen novel, and I was impressed by his characterizations and impeccable skill at the craft of writing. At times I found myself laughing out loud at Franzen’s sardonic sense of humor; but mostly I found myself marveling at the genius of his prose. Freedom is not a light read. It is a rather negative view of the American way of life – not all I agreed with, but many times the truth of the novel was hard to deny. The characters in this novel are hardly likable. Instead, they are flawed and use their freedom to mess up their lives and the lives of those they love. Despite not really liking any of the characters, I did end up liking the book.
Since finishing this novel, I’ve read some wildly disparate reviews of it. Some people love it; others hate it; some never finished it…and I see where not everyone will connect to Freedom. On the other hand, once in a long time a novel comes along which is truly an “American” novel from start to finish. I think Freedom fits the bill. Despite painting America with a negative brush, Franzen also provides an interesting perspective on what life is like in the 21st century. Whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, Freedom is an entertaining read.
Highly recommended for readers who enjoy literary fiction.