With the wide acclaim Jonathan Franzen has received since the release of the National Book Award winner The Corrections, I expected his writing to blow me away. The popularity of his most recent novel, Freedom is undeniable. Being named to Oprah’s book club Oprah’s book club list sealed the deal, perhaps even more than winning a coveted literary award. In some circles people know who you are as an author and recognize your book more due to publicity gained from “Oprah fame.” One of my book clubs chose to read this novel over the summer and I was interested to see what all the fuss was about. I must confess that I was not as won over as some of my peers by Franzen’s writing style, and at times I even wanted to stop reading. As with most novels I delve into, I was able to take away both good and bad aspects of this story of a couple’s relationship from the time they meet in college until it is destroyed by the reality of the fact that they have been living a lie for years.
At the onset of the novel, the reader is drawn into an intriguing storyline regarding the too good to be true mother and wife who takes charge of the entire neighborhood with a perfection other mothers envy. The narration is performed by her neighbors who seem to know everything about Patty Berglund. The reader immediately sees that they know too much. It isn’t until Patty begins narrating her own section of the novel, Mistakes Were Made, that the real Patty is revealed.
Patty unveils her troubled past with her family and her college years as a basketball star. While attending the University of Minnesota to escape her family, Patty met the two main men in her life, Walter Berglund and Richard Katz. From the start, the reader watches Walter pursue Patty despite the fact that she never truly wants him emotionally or physically. She decides to continue to see him only because of his best friend, Richard. When Richard finally turns her down, she goes back to Walter and marries him. This is something that will plague their relationship for years. Of course, later when Patty decides she isn’t happy, she runs to Richard, the one she had always wanted. It is all a very predictable love triangle.
In the midst of Patty’s decision to choose Walter the first time and cheat on him with his best friend after they have been married and had children together are her considerations about being a decent person. If Patty has love for Walter it is due to his goodness, something she fears she does not possess. When Patty wants to choose Richard over Walter she is at war with herself. Should she try to be a “decent” person or do what her mind and her body tell her she wants and needs? In all of our lives we struggle with this concept of what society deems righteous or respectable versus what we would actually choose to do without considering what we have been taught is right. But does there come a point when we must forget about others and the way we will be judged by society in order to make ourselves happy? And what are the ramifications of our actions when we decide to forget about other people and only think about ourselves? Patty chooses herself instead of her family and her husband. Mistakes were made.
I would have loved for Franzen to continue examining the complexities of Patty. But as soon as I became interested in her story, a new section of the novel approached and the story completely changed to focus on a new character in the family. The novel becomes about Joey, Walter and Patty’s son and his girlfriend whom he later marries, Connie. There is something about the characters and the novel which very much resembles a soap opera. The best of Russian authors assemble a large cast of characters, so this cannot be where it fails. There is simply something missing in terms of literary merit from the drama which is created when Joey goes to college and becomes involved in scheming the U.S. government out of money for army equipment meant to be used in the war in Middle East with the same company (LBI) that Walter also becomes associated with through his job as an environmental activist in Washington D.C. The text, it seems, becomes a device to communicate political views which don’t exactly fit into the initial plot. I don’t want to give away the ending for those who haven’t read, but it was very convenient.
I can definitely understand why some people liked the novel. I wouldn’t immediately dismiss it if you enjoy the adult contemporary genre. Most of the people in my book club did appreciate the book. They said the falling apart of a marriage was so realistic that they enjoyed seeing it unfold. To be honest I didn’t like the thought that this could happen to me. Also I didn’t think the characters or the story line were as well executed as they did. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, it’s what makes the world go round. There was a lot of talk of Freedom in the book-maybe this is part of what Franzen was getting at.
Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
The above is a Video Book Review of Freedom
THe A.V. Club: Interview with Franzen
Time Article: Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist