FREEDOMBy Lee Peoples | October 27th, 2010 | Category: Book Reviews, Fiction | 1 Comment »
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is by far one of the best novels I have read this year. It is well deserving of the acclaim accorded to it by Oprah in choosing it as her most recent book club pick. Franzen’s manipulation of plot, his larger than life characters with whom the reader can easily identify, its theme of freedom . . . help to make this an engrossing and sometimes sad, sometimes comedic page turner.
“. . . an epic of contemporary love and marriage.” . . . “Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.”
Somewhat of a tragicomedy, Freedom tells the story of generations of dysfunctional families. Its central character is Patty Emerson Berglund, a former college basketball star whose only ambition is to be the best parent she can be. When Patty was fifteen, she was the victim of rape, which went unreported because of her parents’ prominence in politics. Vowing to be there for her children always and in every way, she chooses to be a stay-at-home mom instead of a career outside the home. Her husband, Walter Berglund, a lawyer, chooses instead of a career as a lawyer to pursue his love of birds through his conservation efforts. Their son Joey, feeling smothered by his mother and experiencing conflicts with his father, chooses to assert his independence at fourteen by moving in with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend Connie and her family next door. Jessica, their daughter, feels closer to her father than her mother, who, she feels, cares more for Joey than her. Then there is Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend and former roommate in college. Tall, dark, and handsome and a notorious womanizer, he is the leader of a rock band. Though very much in love with Walter, Patty is attracted to Richard and does not take advantage of her freedom to have a relationship with him until years after her marriage to Walter. Consequences, of course, ensue, among them serious bouts of depression.
Freedom comes with privilege and sometimes consequences, as the characters in Franzen’s best seller learn. The consequences in many cases are bouts of depression on the parts of many of the characters, suggesting a theme in itself.
The author weaves Patty’s college basketball career and her husband Walter’s love of birds together with the politics of both their families, as the setting moves from one place to another, mainly Saint Paul and Hibbing, Minnesota; New York; and Washington, D. C. Patty, formerly of New York, is Jewish although she does not practice her faith. Estranged from her wealthy Emerson family, her son and daughter grow up with little knowledge of Patty’s side of the family. Walter, on the other hand, of very modest means, grew up in Minnesota, where his mother and alcoholic father ran a small motel.
This current Oprah pick gets 5 out of 5 stars in spite of its sometimes “coarse” details, which were necessary to the plot in that they were symbolic of some of the “coarse” events: Patty cheats on a husband who in spite of her shortcomings adores her; Walter, now middle-aged, turns to his twenty-eight-year-old assistant when he learns of Patty’s infidelity with his best friend; Joey, their son at fourteen declares his independence from his parents and moves in with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend and her family.
Very well written and captivating from beginning to end, this novel has it all—sex, politics, exploitation under the guise of conservation . . . comedy (the limits and amounts of money Vin Haven and Walter go to to preserve the cerulean warbler) . . . tragedy . . .. Suspenseful to the very touching, heartwarming end!