Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
Genre: Literary Fiction
Where I Got It: Received it as a gift for my birthday
My Rating: 4.5 stars
When I was at the halfway point of this book, I still wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. It felt dense and depressing, and I wasn’t liking the characters all that much. But when I got two-thirds of the way through, the book—and the characters—started to grow on me. And, as I came to the end, I found myself weeping and filled with admiration for Franzen. By the end, I cared deeply for these characters—these flawed people who are trying their damnedest to make a connection and screwing it up over and over.
But let’s start at the beginning. This is book about a marriage—specifically the flawed and very f$%ked up marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund. We first glimpse the Berglunds through the eyes of their Minnesota neighbors. Patty, former college athlete and now a stay-at-home mom, is envied and liked, yet she tends to alienate people. Walter, too nice to dislike, is truly her better half. We get a peek into some of the issues that the Berglund family is facing—with the biggest scandal being the rebellion of their 16-year-old son Joey, who chooses to leave the family home to live with the next-door neighbors.
From there, we read Patty Berglund’s autobiography, aptly entitled “Mistakes Were Made.” Written as a therapeutic exercise during a bout of depression, we get Patty’s view of her childhood and her courtship with Walter. It is in this document that we learn of a critical third party in the Berglund marriage—musician Richard Katz, who is both Walter’s best friend and Patty’s (somewhat) unrequited love interest.
We then get into Walter’s head (as he fights his growing discontent with Patty), Richard’s head (as he struggles with his loyalty to Walter and his attraction to Patty), and Joey’s head (as he struggles to break free from his mother, earn his father’s respect, and become his own person despite the all-encompassing love/albatross of his girlfriend Connie.) Then, when things blow up and fall apart, we revisit Patty as she continues her autobiography. Finally, coming full circle, we glimpse the Berglunds through the eyes of new Minnesota neighbors—and these Berglunds are very very different from the couple we met at the start of the book.
This structure makes for an interesting reading experience. We view each character through several prisms. Patty seen through her eyes is different from the Patty we see through Richard, Walter and Joey’s eyes. As we experiences the Berglund’s marriage, I found myself continually changing my feelings about each character. Midway through, I was discussing the book with Sandy of You’ve GOTTA Read This! and she wrote: “I thought the characters were just a freaking mess. I would have paid money to lock their asses up in a room together just to see who would come out alive. And I often felt slimy after I’d spent some time with them.” I agree with this sentiment, but, as I continued to read, I began to soften towards them … to almost love them. Yes, they are flawed. Yes, they make mistakes. But isn’t this more realistic and truthful? Although I like to pretend otherwise, I’m more like Patty Berglund than I’d like to admit. Her struggle to be a better person is one to which I could often relate. Her belated realization that love was always right there in front of her was a revelation … and one that was rendered so realistically and truthfully that it cut to the core of my heart.
When I read Franzen’s previous novel, The Corrections, I remember feeling alienated from it. Part of it could have been that I wasn’t “ready” for a novel like that. It could also be that Franzen meant you to feel alienated. (My memory of the book is a bit hazy now … some eight years on.) At first, I was feeling the same way with Freedom. It has been heralded as An Important Book. And, like so many other Important Books, I was finding it hard to find my way to its heart. It wasn’t because Franzen’s writing is inaccessible; it just felt distant and cold. But, the more I read, the more involved I got. For me, the moment when I “crossed over” was when Walter experiences some moments of freedom toward the end of the book. At that point, I was invested and involved—and when Franzen rips out Walter’s heart, he ripped out mine too.
Aside from the examination of the Berglund’s marriage, Franzen also uses Freedom to comment on modern American life—making statements (both overtly and covertly) about 9/11, the Iraq War, consumerism, environmental issues, overpopulation, music and celebrity. These social and political issues didn’t feel disingenuous to me, and I never felt like Franzen was getting up on a soapbox at the expense of the story. For me, it made the book more grounded and current. This isn’t a book that takes place in some nebulous timeframe; parts of it take place specifically during 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq war. You know that because the characters deal with those issues (and the other mentioned above) directly and in a hands-on way. I’m sure some readers will be turned off by this aspect of the book, but I found it involving and interesting.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Franzen’s writing. He has been billed as one of our most important modern novelists, and I wouldn’t disagree with that. I marked quite a few phrases and paragraphs that really spoke to me, and I thought I’d excerpt some here.
She was like an imaginary friend who happened to be visible.
He was beginning to see, as he hadn’t in St. Paul, that things’ prices weren’t always evident at first glance: that the really big ballooning of the interest charges on his high-school pleasures might still lie ahead of him.
At the Days Inn in Beckley, they fitted identical keycards into identical doors, fifteen feet from each other, and entered rooms whose identical profound sadness only a torrid illicit liaison could have overcome.
And she knew better than to stab at an existing wound twice, but either she was the world’s most expert implier, or Joey was the world’s most sensitive inferrer. She had to merely mention an upcoming visit from her old teammate Cathy Schmidt for Joey to hear invidious criticism of Connie.
Mercifully, the ring turned up in the second of the turds he broke apart. A hardness amid softness, a clean circle within chaos.
The Dent and Dolberg houses were standing empty now, their windows darkened like the call-holding lights of emergency-hotline callers who’d finally quietly hung up….
Freedom isn’t an easy read and won’t be a good fit for everyone. You might find yourself halfway through and considering giving up. You may wonder “Why am I reading about these horrid people?” But I urge you to read on. I was on the fence for a good majority of the book (and for a 562-page book, that is a long time). But, in the end, I came to love this book and its flawed characters. I got involved and was moved. It was a book where, when I read the last page, I closed it and just sat for a moment out of respect for what I’d just read. I urge you to give it a try.