As a reader, I tend to have a wandering eye. Fully immersed as I may be in one book, I often find myself planning the next few to-reads in my spare time. Not so with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In fact, midway through, once Franzen’s prose really hit its stride, I found myself taking my time just to stretch out the experience a bit longer! Ultimately, Freedom engaged me because of the relatable Berglunds and the family saga the book details. Like the Lamberts of the The Corrections before them, the Berglunds are a dysfunctional brood. However, despite and because of their eccentricities, they argue for Franzen that “freedom” as we know it is tenuous, and possibly not the virtue we make it out to be.
Freedom is a novel of great scope but makes its various arguments about contemporary living by way of a single source: the middle-class nuclear family. And of this mold, the Berglunds are the ideal example. Walter, the father, is an educated salaryman with a soft spot for environmentalism; Patty, the mother, puts her family first as a homemaker with the best intentions; and Jessica and Joey, the children, respond to their parents’ styles of childrearing in opposing ways. Through various twists and turns in time and locale, Franzen’s novel details the rise and fall of the Berglunds, charting their successes and failures as the novel crashes toward its satisfying conclusion.
Like all truly great novels, Freedom succeeds in clarifying some element of the human condition. In this novel, the author argues that the coveted American ideal of “freedom” is ultimately unsatisfying and not worthy of the energy we expend once we achieve it. In fact, in my reading, Freedom even goes so far as to claim that we are more likely to thrive if given certain boundaries in our existence. No one illustrates this point more clearly than family patriarch Walter Berglund. Walter is a man of boundaries. Due to painful childhood experiences as a result of his father’s alcoholism, the adult Walter is decidedly a man of morals. Walter abstains from alcohol and places the highest value on familial loyalty. Within these self-imposed boundaries Walter thrives, securing the woman of his dreams as his wife and succeeding in his chosen field of environmental conservation. However, when Walter’s great values betray him via Lalitha, his doting assistant, his world disintegrates before him.
One of the reasons that “freedom” is ultimately so unsatisfying is the disconnecting competition it inspires. In Freedom, Patty Berglund is the embodiment of competition. As the eldest of four children, Patty’s childhood and adolescent energy was expended largely in an effort to win her parents’ attention over her siblings. Her talents, unfortunately, reside in basketball, a pastime that cultivated Patty’s competitive spirit, but distanced her from her liberal arts-loving parents. Later in life, Patty transitions from the role of competitor to the object of others’ competition. Walter and best friend Richard Katz, an enigmatic musician, find themselves in a battle for Patty’s love beginning in college and lasting through middle age. While these various competitions draw attention to some unflattering human characteristics, they are ultimately very realistic and at least for me, very familiar.
To save this review from reading as a long-winded rave, I won’t wrap this up before commenting on a few of the novel’s less-than-stellar moments. First is the novel’s book-within-a-book: “Mistakes Were Made”, an autobiography by Patty Berglund. I tend to have mixed feelings on some of the nontraditional, postmodern tropes used in contemporary literature (see my review of A Visit from the Goon Squad for a little more on that), and I found this one particularly confusing. While I was glad to hear Patty’s perspective on her family’s painful decline, due to the third-person narration, I often forgot that this was the perspective I was in fact reading. Because of this, construct was ultimately not very successful.
A second feature of the novel I found a bit ineffective was its frequent interjection of political commentary. While articulate political commentary always has a place in literary fiction, I found the liberal-leaning digressions on Bush-Cheney warmongering and environmental conservation to be a bit dated in light of the financial crisis that followed. While I firmly believe that Freedom deserves a place in the contemporary literary canon, it misses some of the economic poignancy that other contemporary novels have achieved (e.g. Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic).
It is a rare treat to read a book that lives up to, and even surpasses, its hype. Thankfully, I am happy to recommend Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as one such novel.