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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just wonderful.
There’s a synopsis here so I’m not going to re-tell the story. Willy Vlautin’s favourite two words are “… and left”. They come at the end of many scenes, simply saying that’s it, now on to the next bit. It’s typical of his quiet, economical use of language. There are no unnecessary flowery descriptions because the important...
Published 5 months ago by O. J. B. Gray

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disengaged
Although I could see the merits of this book, unfortunately it just didn't hold my attention; I didn't engage with any of the characters, and I found the writing was somehow cold, and distanced me from the narrative. Undoubtedly a very good book, but just not for me.
Published 25 days ago by Lois Sparshott


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just wonderful., 13 Feb 2014
By 
O. J. B. Gray (Winchester, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Free (Kindle Edition)
There’s a synopsis here so I’m not going to re-tell the story. Willy Vlautin’s favourite two words are “… and left”. They come at the end of many scenes, simply saying that’s it, now on to the next bit. It’s typical of his quiet, economical use of language. There are no unnecessary flowery descriptions because the important things are the people and their lives. There’s delicious use of leit-motif. Leroy and Jeanette always buy Rainier beer and listen to Amália Rodriguez. Nurse Pauline always asks her patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, Freddie is comforted daily by Pat from the donut van, while Freddie’s boss comes to work every day clutching a bottle of soda and a different frozen meal. The touching mundanity of these people’s lives is set out simply by description of what they do. We all have familiar routines in our lives that we cling on to. You find all you need to know about Freddie’s dire finances just by reading his list of outgoings. It’s a style that is entirely Vlautin’s own, and his many fans would have been happy with just that. In The Free, however, there’s a new and fascinating element. Leroy’s mind is telling him an altogether different kind of story, an almost supernatural tale of a frightening and totalitarian society though which he and his girlfriend Jeanette struggle and flee. It’s almost like a separate and contrasting book and the way it is interwoven with the stories of Pauline and Freddie adds a whole new excitement to Vlautin’s engaging style. It’s hard to explain how the story is so gripping while mainly being so quiet, so warm, despite the struggles everyone goes through. There’s hardly anyone bad here, and a range of people who are extraordinarily good in the face of poverty, illness and adversity. By this I mean morally good, unselfish, uncomplaining, kind to others. Even the poor exploited Jo is redeemable and the pot growers seem nice, almost honest. Freddie and Pauline are the kinds of people you’d just love to meet and give a cuddle to. You really feel you know them and you certainly love them. There’s no pot-boiling plot or exciting end here. It’s about brilliantly creating an atmosphere that ensures you care deeply about everyone involved. Just wonderful.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Unforgettable Novel., 10 Feb 2014
By 
ACB (swansea) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Free (Kindle Edition)
The opening passages of this extraordinary book hit hard at the stark reality of a disabled war victim and the subsequent impact on his carers and his own reminiscences, often fantasised, but emphatic on how difficult the struggles to keep some control on reality are accompanied by hardship. Leroy Kervin was a survivor of a roadside bomb whilst serving a soldier in Iraq, suffering major brain trauma. Survival becomes an existence where he 'couldn't speak and he couldn't walk'. After extensive rehabilitation he functions on a basic level, with total memory loss. After seven years, his clarity of thought returns when he remembers his lost years. Not wishing to return to his previous non-existence, an attempted suicide finds him on life-support with the attention of nurse Pauline and the continued friendship of night-watchman, Freddie, from his care home.

Leroy has reality nightmares, Pauline is subjected to her own ordeals, with her work, her son and Leroy's family. Freddie is under pressure to keep his family in order, personally and financially. The protagonists are all trapped in their own worlds, some real, some partly fantasised. Willy Vlautin encapsulates the whole horrific ordeal into an engrossing, compassionate and compelling novel. It remains unsentimental, yet is the author's clear portrayal of an aspect of American life. The characters are alive and kicking with memories that will survive this unforgettable book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thanks Pelecanos, 9 April 2014
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This review is from: The Free (Paperback)
I discovered Willy Vlautin by accident. I watched a Sky Book Programme involving George Pelecanos. He was asked to recommend a book and (to my surprise because I assumed he'd pick a thriller writer) he chose 'Motel Life'. I am so grateful to him because of this marvelous discovery - Willy Vlautin (and Richmond Fontaine).
'The Free' is not an easy read. It is multi-layered with complex characters,dark text and a sense of fatality in the action (and in some cases that action is a dream). These nightmare sequences are dark and allegorical. This is raw America with a dark underclass little covered by Hollywood and the TV networks. It is a society that struggles with debt and medical insurance costs. I felt that I had to read the book in stages, partly to assimilate Willy's message but also to understand and have an empathy with the pain that Freddie, Leroy and Jo suffer.
And if you've never tried or heard of Richmond Fontaine (where WV is the lead singer and writer) do try them. Start with 'Post to Wire' and be further amazed by Willy's talent and ability to look at the American darkside.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disengaged, 5 July 2014
By 
Lois Sparshott "Loco" (Somerset, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Free (Kindle Edition)
Although I could see the merits of this book, unfortunately it just didn't hold my attention; I didn't engage with any of the characters, and I found the writing was somehow cold, and distanced me from the narrative. Undoubtedly a very good book, but just not for me.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant story - tacky inset, 10 May 2014
By 
This review is from: The Free (Paperback)
I have liked all Vlautin's books up till now, Lean On Pete is a masterpiece in my opinion. I enjoyed The Free no less, Vlautin's style is simple yet completely absorbing, the characters beautifully drawn and convincing. However, I will gripe about what others have in these reviews - the dream sequence. Of course it is meant to mimic Leroy's fantasy novels but some parts of that plot come across as just as flat and contrived as stories of that genre tend to be. The result is a story within the story that cannot compare with the main narrative. One case in point is the romance - the real encounters of nurse Pauline with her lover put her across as funny and hard-nosed, whereas the romantic dialogue of Jeanette and Leroy in the fantasy part are tacky.
Still, I fully recommend this book to all of Vlautin's fans and even more so to those who don't know him yet. Enjoy!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Maybe people just get worn out. I never thought that was true, but now I think it's true. Maybe people can only take so much", 27 Mar 2014
This review is from: The Free (Paperback)
You will not read a more life-affirming, unsentimental contemporary novel this year- by turns heartbreaking, inspiring and just plain well observed, Willy Vlautin's fourth novel is a poignant and moving portrait of three ordinary people and their friends and families trying to make their way through the harsh realities of a post 9/11 world.

If this book doesn't leave you feeling elated by the small mercies shown to the characters, each trying to find a way to love as best they can in a loveless place, then you're beyond help- you've lost something indefinable and precious.

Or perhaps you're already one of The Free.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No point if we're not nice to each other, 24 Mar 2014
By 
Antenna (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
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This review is from: The Free (Paperback)
Leroy, a damaged survivor of the Iraq war, uses a rare moment of lucidity to make a failed suicide attempt. As he lies in hospital, his surreal dreams of a dystopian world are intercut with the stories of those involved in caring for him: the moonlighting night warden Freddie, or nurse Pauline who always has time to talk to her patients with empathy.

Willy Vlautin writes about the daily lives of ordinary people with more than their fair share of bad luck, to which they may have added a few mistakes. Despite this, they manage to retain the will to persevere combined with decency and kindness. Some reviewers have commented that the frequent repetition of drinking Rainier beers or buying certain kinds of junk food in the supermarket serves as a kind of mantra, but for me, the banality often becomes oppressive and the book is just saved from tedium by a few dramatic or moving events, and the author’s ability to arouse sympathy, liking and even respect for people one might overlook or undervalue in real life. For a while, I feared the story might end in mawkish sentimentality, but it is in fact darker than Northline, the only other novel by Vlautin that I have read.

Vlautin’s style is simple and direct, focused on often minute description. For instance, not the first description of nurse Pauline’s feet: “She bent over and took off her shoes. She set her feet on top of them and leaned back in her chair”. Or, the description of Freddie packing up his beloved train set to sell for much needed cash, rather than of his grief over having to do this: “Freddie McCall found an empty cardboard box and began wrapping toy trains in newspaper. There were eight in total and he set those on the bottom of the box, and put all twenty boxcars on top of them. In another box he put his remaining track and switches, transformers and various wagons and buildings”…..and so on.

In some ways it is refreshing to encounter an author who clearly writes from the heart with a great natural enjoyment of the process, but does not appear to have set foot in a creative writing class, or to have paid any attention to it if he did. On the other hand, the narrative suitable for a reading age of eight, in vocabulary if not subject matter, often left me gasping for a metaphor or an introspective thought. Yet, the next novel I read will probably seem pretentious, and Vlautin’s portrayal of what lies beneath the surface of the fool's gold glitter of the world’s leading economy (for the time being) will stay in my mind for some time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Uplifting!, 20 Mar 2014
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This review is from: The Free (Kindle Edition)
I chose this for a Book Group after reading some very good reviews. Not disappointed at all. Full of wonderful characters and it makes you thankful for what you have. So much for the American dream. This is reality for most Americans who have to juggle low paid work with family commitments.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quiet, understated lives. With an undertow you won't forget., 19 Mar 2014
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Free (Paperback)
Occasionally one comes upon a novel that is so good, so complexly enrapturing, that one doesn’t know how to make it stand out from the crowd enough to make everyone you know want to read it. I can do no better than quote another reviewer: Ursula Le Guin:

“Vlautin is one of the bravest novelists writing. Murderers, cheats, sadists, showy examples of the banality of evil are easy, but it takes courage to write a novel about ordinary people. They don’t fit into the cynic’s little boxes – they’re way too big… The common people, the ones who never get the breaks, the ones who need and know, compassion. An unsentimental Steinbeck, a heartbroken Haruf, Willy Vlautin tells us who really lives now in our America, our city in ruins.”

Vlautin’s skill is so understated and gracefully compulsive, you might not get it on a first reading. I finished it in a fever of anxiety, and turned back straight away to read it again. It is overwhelmingly honest and true – 273 pages of humanity stripped down to the core. Leroy is a young wounded Iraq veteran, sent to a hospital where he’s not expected to survive. But something of Leroy does survive. To be frank, I’m not sure what it is – dreams, feelings, an inner life of some kind, where he sometimes relives the moments before his death - and beyond.

Meanwhile, and intercut with this narrative, the hospital life continues. Does something leak from this world to wherever Leroy is? For Leroy is alive. Something of him survives, for a time at least. This novel is mesmerising, painful, pitiful, beautiful.

Life goes on all around the dying young man. Leroy’s mother sits at his bedside and reads aloud to him the science fiction books he used to love. A compassionate nurse, Pauline, tries to save a young girl, a drug addict whose ‘friends’ only want her back in the misery of her past. The nightman at the hospital, Freddie, only wants to be reunited with his daughters. But the crippling debt of medication for one of the children is burying him in hopelessness (If anything, this book will make you thankful for the NHS – though for how much longer, who knows?).

In his dreams, his inner life, Leroy escapes from the here and now, but no one can escape forever.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, just wonderful, 1 Feb 2014
By 
Amanda Jenkinson "MandyJ" (Cheltenham) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Free (Kindle Edition)
Willy Vlautin’s 4th novel is an extraordinary and deeply compassionate story, heartbreakingly real and quite unforgettable. He’s a writer who is nowhere near as well-known and appreciated as he deserves to be, and I hope that this beautiful book will enhance his reputation and bring him to a wider audience.
The book follows three main protagonists, whose lives intersect as they struggle to find the courage, decency and strength to combat the raw deal life has thrown at them. It opens with Leroy Kervin, a wounded young Iraq war veteran waking to momentary clarity in the group home in which he has been living for some years. Realising that this moment of clarity may not last, and full of despair when he contemplates his future, he attempts suicide. Discovered by the night-time guardian Freddie McCall he is rushed to hospital where he is nursed by Pauline Hawkins. All three of them are trapped in difficult and seemingly hopeless circumstances largely beyond their control, and have to cope with the problems that beset modern day America – the aftermath of wars, poverty, expensive medical care, drugs and unemployment. But in spite of this they hold onto their basic goodness and decency, they refuse to be defeated, and this portrait of a small community, with chapters alternating between the three of them, interspersed with Leroy’s nightmares, is a haunting and unforgettable tale that cannot fail to move the most hard-hearted and pragmatic of readers.
I’ve only recently discovered Willy Vlautin myself and have now become quite evangelical about his writing. This is a powerful and disturbing book, but its grim storyline is infused with tenderness and empathy for ordinary people doing their best, unsentimental but always gentle and ultimately uplifting. Highly recommended.
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