21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 1 November 2012
Though hard work at first, as the characters are not especially appealing and one is bombarded with a huge amount of detailed information about their lives, persistence is rewarded. Gradually the outline of a fairly simple story becomes clear, centering on a liberal, East Coast, intelligent and middle-class family and in particular the dynamic between the neurotic wife Patty and her eager-beaver husband, Walter. The narrative perspective switches initially from that of Walter and his fraught life to that of his wife Patty and her self-obsessive concerns. The narrative voices of other people are also introduced, notably those of their children, Joey and Jessica - though Joey is far more convincing and others (such as Lalitha and Connie) are one-dimensional.
However, for me the book did not come alive until the willful rock musician, Richard Katz, enters the story. He is the lightening rod for the sense of spoilt boredom which encapsulates the entire family's lives. He epitomises the 'freedom' which Franzen implies we all tend to seek, though this is pitilessly shown to be self-indulgent and superficial. But at least things start to happen when Katz arrives on the scene. Unfortunately, according to Franzen, this shallow world is the dominant feature of modern America, except that most people are too ignorant to notice. Altruism, whether in the form of ecological action or the religious impulse, is merely another form of neediness. Love is a kind of desperate search for affirmation, security and/or pleasure. Everyone indulges their own emotional incontinence, unwilling to face up to a wider world beyond egotistical promptings.
While not exactly a way out or forwards, Franzen does imply that there is a better way to live, which is to accept things as they are - and thus Patty eventually works out how to patch things up with her husband, Walter. Franzen seems to be saying that the world is corrupt and that humans are feeble slaves of their baser instincts, but it is possible to get by without inflicting too much damage on others if you lower your expectations dramatically.
The bleak and thoroughly petty world which Franzen writes about is brilliantly portrayed, deadpan and with humour. The main two characters do somehow become endearing, because they are true to life even if within Franzen's unrelentingly grey version of what that entails. Closely observed factual details are piled up (sometimes too many of them) to create the environment in which his people spiritually crawl about.
Franzen writes very well - if rather knowingly - about people's motivations and how they are driven by anxieties which no one (at least in Franzen's universe) is able to transcend. He gives rein a little too much to the modern tendency to bulk up novels with a lot of information - another form of American excess? And business is of course another evil domain, where the strong prey on the weak: the sections dealing with Walter's outlandish ecological mission and Joey's failed project to supply spare parts to the US army in Iraq came across to me as crude and contrived. I finished the book glad that it was over but regretting that there were no more of Franzen's lyrical passages of internal dialogue - for example, about the high school dating worries of Joey or the guilt-ridden calculations of the would-be adulterer, Walter.
Franzen has a powerful ability to lift the carpet and to bring to life the very ordinary dirt in everyone's internal lives. I have not read other novels by this writer, but 'Freedom' is intelligently downbeat and refreshingly hard-nosed. The mundane lives of his characters remain gripping because they are so personal and convincingly concrete. Like so much else, it would benefit from a tough edit.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 8 December 2013
... The first being The Corrections. Franzen continues to plough the same furrow in this one though. The philosophy of the 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, underlies both - in The Corrections through the youthful writings of the one-day family patriarch, Al Lambert, and here through the overpowering influence of a tired, amoral and charismatic musician called Richard Katz - and one imagines that that philosophy may be integral to Franzen's outlook more generally. However, in Freedom, the gloomy German thinker has a worthy opponent in the figure of one Walter Berglund, whose attempts to live out a modern, secular morality provide much of the book's narrative impetus and cultural interest. In other words, Freedom is essentially about the struggle to find a meaning in life, and, without giving too much away, it is Walter whose vision - suitably truncated - wins the day. Just.
As with The Corrections, the writing is something to behold. Franzen isn't one of those authors who shies from using big words. In his universe, Raymond Carver never existed. The odd thing is, you don't respect him any the less for it.
Shame on all those people, by the way, who gave this novel one or two stars. What is it that makes so many Amazon readers gang up against consciously intelligent books like Freedom? Stupidity? Envy? Resentment? A personal dislike of the author? All four? Actually, at the time of writing this review, EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey has a higher average star-rating on this site than Freedom, which can't be right.
Or can it? Schopenhauer wouldn't have been surprised!
Seriously though, ignore the snipes. If you value modern fiction, and you haven't read this yet, you should. And not just because it's "worthy". As quite a lot of the newspaper critics pointed out when it was first published, it's a real page-turner. Entertaining, in the best sense of the term.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
First things first, this is a novel, not a thriller. If you want to read something with an exciting plot, car chases, a mystery to solve, couples signing contracts to enjoy S&M sex, boys becoming wizards etc. then read no further - this is not the book for you. Like his superb novel "The Corrections", "Freedom" is a book about life, a story of people and their relationships, the ups and downs, and just like life it is often rather slow, sometimes a little dull, occasionally meandering.
It opens slowly, introducing the principal characters who we will follow through this long novel, and we read of their relationships, their friendships, their squabbles. It is a tough way to start in a sense, with a lot to take in, and by the end of this first section I was rather confused and underwhelmed, wondering if it was worth carrying on, but I persevered and it improves massively after this. As I said at the start, this is a long, slow story, covering a generation, and the writing is wonderful throughout.
If this is your first exposure to Frantzen's fiction I suggest you try "The Corrections" first, which is a little shorter and maybe a touch easier to read, but if you loved that book you'll love this one almost as much. The scope is breathtaking, and if you want to read a book that will take you a long time to read (it took me 3 days to read on holiday, which is a lot when you consider I was reading one book a day and starting another on each other day) but which you can savour, give this a go. It was the best thing I read on holiday this year. Fantastic stuff.
131 of 149 people found the following review helpful
on 26 September 2010
Ten years after "The Corrections", Franzen finally comes up with the 562 pages of the follow-up, "Freedom". Such an evocative and multilayered, if unimaginative, title, shows that Franzen is up for the inevitable Great American Novel considerations. It's a lot like its predecessor in being a panoramic view of an average middle-class American family, here the Berglunds, moving back and forward in time to show how they became what they are, and each generation's interactions with the next. Then there's all the environmental stuff: the father of the Berglund family, Walter, is a conservationist nut, albeit one who's kind of in bed with the coal industry for a while: cue much soul-searching.
Over a third of the book is told from Walter's wife Patty's point of view, but she's writing in third person, on her therapist's suggestion. This gives rise to the one glaring technical fault with the book: her voice is exactly the same as Franzen's own omniscient narrator's voice: arch, amusedly distant, and so forth. That means it's still fun to read, but it's easy to forget, and hard to accept, that it's supposed to be Patty writing. There's also comment on the Iraq war, 9/11, lots of anti-consumerist stuff. There's a secondary character called Jonathon, a very conscientious young man, vocally anti-war - I'm guessing his first name's not accidental.
Another qualm I had about "Freedom" is the dialogue. Franzen is very good at dialogue, his dialogue is very contemporary, he's up with all the latest slang, but he goes too far in this direction in this book, for me. The dialogue is too quirky, too many little nuances and plays on words, people don't talk like that.
Overall, this book is a bit self-consciously engaging in all of the hot-button problems of our times. It's slightly didactic, and will probably annoy persons of a right-wing persuasion, as it seems to have a political bias. It's witty, and smart, and well-written, sometimes funny, some great lines, and some endearing characters. Whether it's as great as its champions proclaim it, or as bad as the people who don't like it say, - well, it's probably somewhere in the middle, like everything. It's definitely worth reading. It'll give every reader something to chew on. Further than that, I really cannot say.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 June 2014
I really don't know how a book this poor got past both the editor's scissors and the publisher's quality assurance checks. It is very poor and very very long.
The characters are not well developed - Franzen simply tells us in the narrative what they are like, then doesn't bother to show us that by their actions or speech. All the characters therefore seem like one homogenised personality. I got the impression that they are all Franzen himself - he was simply telling us about all the things that he has done and he likes in a rather contrived manner.
Similarly the prose is uniformly dull. Franzen has adopted a light-hearted style which I imagine he thinks is amusing. It isn't though, it just comes across to me as smug. He tries to mix it up by including excerpts from one of the main character's diary. However he then adopts exactly the same style for these sections!
The book is about twice the size it should be and for no good reason. The plot goes into pointless cul de sacs with characters that really go nowhere - an example being the section that focuses on semi-formed unimportant characters making fudge and toffee at Christmas. Any decent editor would have removed the entire chapter - again I imagined that this is something that Franzen had done in his childhood and felt compelled to tell us about it even though it is irrelevant.
I really did read all of this - I hate not finishing something I start. However I would recommend that you don't waste your time on it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2012
A story about a fairly average middle class american family told over a long timeline - normally this would be enough for me to not bother with a book. However, I have read other books by Jonathan Franzen and enjoyed them, so I gave this a go.
The story revolves around a couple called Patty and Walter. The point of view and timeline jump about, to tell the story from all sorts of angles. Over the course of the book you develop a deep understanding for the characters, which most modern novels can not get near to. You could argue that you get to know the characters better than they know themselves because you find out what made them how they are and how other people see them.
There are a few themes that run through the story, the most intriguing one for me being how relationships develop over time and whether animal attraction is more important than suitability of partners. It's hard to say much more without spoilers but there is a lot of meaning under the surface of this book.
This is a very long book, which gives space to really develop the lead characters and show them age over time. I would say that there are some bits of the book that feel a bit flabby and could benefit from being trimmed down. For instance, there are quite a lot about preservation of mountain birds in the middle, which does not really add anything to the story and may have been better suited to a magazine article rather than add extra pages to a book that is already quite hefty.
That little moan aside, the book is great. It is a very satisying story. Everyone in it is fully rounded and three dimensional and by the end I really cared what happened to them.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 April 2011
Most present-day American archetypes will see a reflection of themselves somewhere in Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom."
And they will most likely cringe.
The author may or may not be the second coming of the greatest American novelist, but he is definitely a good, and most American novelist.
And for sure, he forgoes a place in the classical canon with his frequent pop references and appeals to the current national sensibilities, but Franzen's got a few things to say about the people of the United States and gosh darn if he isn't going to say them.
It reportedly took the author 10 years to write "Freedom," but he was not simply grooming something that was drafted in 2002. He followed the nation's progress, or lack of progress as he seems to suggest, growing his story right up until the financial crisis of 2008.
"Freedom" represents the triumph of a kind of literary reporting. Franzen's people swim in the zeitgeist the way we all do, like it or not.
The novel charts a Midwestern family of four's wade through the 1970s all the way to the aforementioned sub-prime market meltdown with a keen eye on what makes an American throughout the epoch under examination.
This family of his mind's creation, the Berglunds, with the help of their antecedents, siblings and offspring, swim in the current of contemporary events without the author ever seeming to stretch things to fit his scheme.
He comments on our ugly national mood, growing intolerance, gaping inequalities, corruptions, perversion and decadence with irrefutable accuracy, sparing none, right. left, straight, gay, Christian, secular, blue or red.
There is a density to the prose. Some have said the author uses too many words, but if that is the case, it is rarely in useless or neurotic digression. The action moves along all the while employing the kind techniques that separate finer literature from a good potboiler.
And for all the darkness and foreboding Franzen thrusts upon his ample readership, he manages to close on an optimistic note, which, too, makes him very American.
All of it while seemingly riffing an effortless path through his own sentiments, when those in the know will understand how much more went into this fine and worthy work.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 July 2013
Some reviewers of this hefty novel seem to have got themselves quite angry over its characters and/or their politics. A little sensitive perhaps? I'm glad I ignored them. I put this aside until I had time to read it properly, and took it with me on holiday. Once about 50 pages in I felt I was really getting to know the main characters and finding their foibles, disappointments and hopes amazingly lifelike, as if they were people I knew in the real world.
Families and marriages really are this messy for many of us. People have their faults: no one is perfect. Families can be dysfunctional in many ways. Patty was hard for me to relate to, and Richard too, yet I've known people who aren't dissimilar. How many times do kids rebel against their parents? It's virtually essential to some degree or another, and therefore Joey's behaviour seemed explicable, but I felt his parents' sense of rejection and betrayal. And how about all the compromises over environmental causes? This is the world we live in, and we all have to find our own way around it. Things are not black and white; choices are rarely simply right or wrong.
For me, Franzen does in both The Corrections and Freedom what Tom Wolfe did in Bonfire of the Vanities, only in a much more literary and finely observed way: sums up our times, the world we live in. Well worth the wait!
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 13 October 2011
I'm staggered by some of the mixed reviews on here. Maybe it's as a result of the hype surrounding this novel and the fact that it's been critically acclaimed. But cast that aside and what you'll find is a truly excellent piece of work.
Franzen manages to split the novel up into manageable chunks on each character and you really do get a good sense of where they've come from and what shapes their current world view. The relationships they share with each other are realistic (for the most part) and you'll find yourself wanting to know just a little bit more about each of them. True, some of the bits about the Grandparents could have been omitted but that's a minor gripe.
I found it to be a beautiful book. It never feels like a chore despite it's length and I whizzed through it in a week. I seriously wanted to read more and more which is high praise indeed. I'd urge anyone to read it.