On page 361 (of the hardback edition) is the sentence, "You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to f*** up your life in whatever way you want to."
If you take away the reference to being poor and apply the sentence to middle class America, it would seem to be at the centre of this complex, highly readable and deeply human novel. The book circles around this statement as three generations of the Berglund family, their friends and associates use their differing degrees of freedom to make choices which sometimes turn out for the good but more often than not f*** up their lives and those of their children and parents. Therein is an alternative voice of the book which questions this freedom in the face the demands of family, friends and society.
At its heart are three people from the middle generation, Patty (nee Emerson) and Walter Berglund and itinerant rock musician, Richard Katz. This trio form a sort of double love triangle in which each is, in different ways, loved by the other two. It is the tensions and energy thrown off by these relationships which power the narrative drive of the novel.
The opening section introduces the Berglunds living in a gentrifying neighbourhood in Minnesota where they seem to be the perfect liberal middle class couple, environmentally aware paragons of the community. In this section Frannzen succinctly and brilliantly portrays the tensions and desires seething below the surface of a seemingly blandly civilised community.
The facade of this suburban idyll is shattered by the Berglund's son becoming precociously sexually attached to Connie, daughter of the not quite so middle class Carol. The violence of Patty's reaction is initially shocking, but becomes much more understandable as we learn about her history in the second section, a third person autobiography written by Patty at the instigation of her therapist.
The fiction of Patty's "Perfect American Mom" is peeled back as we begin to see the real damaged person underneath. As a talented sportswoman she is a disappointment to her more intellectual parents who ultimately brutally betray her in the interest of their political ambitions. Escaping to university, she is latched on to by the unnerving Eliza who in turn introduces her to the eventual other two sides of the triangle, the cool and laid back Richard and the uptight nerdy Walter. Patty's account of her life charts the increasingly complex relationship between the three of them.
Eventually, Patty's narrative gives way to accounts of Richard's late flowering career, of Walter's self delusional work, attempting to bring environmental respectability to a large mining company, and of the lives of the Berglund children, Joey and Jessica. They, like their parents, enter into the world free to make their own mistakes, but also like their parents, deeply conditioned by their upbringing.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It could be criticised for its ending which could be viewed as rather too neat, but I found it satisfying. Franzen has the courage to decide on an ending and give it to the reader whereas far too many trendily post modern authors leave things hanging. That said, the end is not without a little subtle ambiguity. Also, the Deus ex-machina of an unhappy event which happens towards the end of the novel which is necessary for its eventual conclusion may be a touch on the mechanical side.
However for me the strengths greatly outweigh the weaknesses. The crown jewel is the range of deeply human characters. I have seen the book criticised as being peopled by unlovely characters for whom the reader has no empathy. I disagree, these are deeply flawed people, and as real human beings are frequently unlikeable, but they are always, in their flawed humanity, fundamentally loveable.
I also loved the strength of the writing, ranging from almost unbearable sexual tension, to base comedy (as a character seeks to recover a swallowed wedding ring at the end of its "journey"), to the deep pathos associated with Patty's continuing unhappiness.
Thirdly this is a highly intelligent novel which will make you think, about parenting, about the interaction about the personal and the political, about what it means to love, about what it means to be alive in the western world in the 21st century. However, it should not be viewed as a difficult book, it is at heart a very readable, well plotted story.
One final interesting thing, to me, about this novel is that it is in a genre which normally sets my alarm bells ringing, middle class angst. However, when compared to contemporary English novelists whose characters have a tendency to smugness or to sitting around whining about how awful their privileged lives are, Franzen writes with a drive and energy about characters who at least have the gumption to get out and live their lives, however many mistakes they make along the way.
Very definitely recommended.