Back-of-the-book blurb: Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.
But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outré rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?
… an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom’s characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: There’s a little history between me and Jonathan Franzen; several years ago I read Franzen’s acclaimed The Corrections on the recommendation of a friend. I liked it well enough, but wouldn’t push it on you; he’s a bit wordy for my taste, I found.
When Freedom came out at the end of August, with the accompanying hoopla (see “Franzenfreude,” “Oprah,” and “Obama, Martha’s Vineyard reading”), I figured I’d read it … eventually.
Maybe I went into it with a bad attitude; instead of committing to purchase the book, I borrowed it from our local library. Ah, the pressure of a 550+ page book and a 2-week loan period. Yes, we were dating, but Freedom was very needy, always looking for more time than I could give it, making promises it didn’t deliver, and taking me out for beer when I wanted champagne.
I submitted Freedom as my #fridayReads selection a few weeks ago and a friend asked how I liked it. “It’s like swimming underwater” I replied. Meaning, it’s very smooth and floaty; interesting for a bit, but tiresome after a while; a little warped, as if viewed through the wrong end of a scope. And I kept waiting for something to happen, like a shark to come around the corner and interrupt the (lack of) plot; unfortunately in this case, there was no shark (except maybe the shark Franzen jumped with yet another wordy tome).
The trouble didn’t start right away. I really liked the first 26 pages, in which we meet Patty and Walter Berglund and get a sense of their yuppie gentrified lifestyle. The character descriptions are great (and a bit scary, I saw a bit of my new-mother self in the passages describing Patty’s years with toddlers).
The next (major!) section of the book is titled “Mistakes Were Made: Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion.” This is where the off-putting began, with Patty referring to herself in the third person as “the autobiographer.”
And, yes, I (“the blogger/reviewer”) did see myself here, too:
She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over.
Yet, I kept reading. … the same page over and over.
So, you saw the DNF in the title of this post — “did not finish.” But, I gave it a great effort; a really great effort up to page 217 when I said “enough is enough! I will break the bonds of my self-induced ‘good girl’ chains and enjoy the freedom to choose what I want to read. And this is not it!” Really, it was that dramatic.
And, like any dramatic break-up, it cost me. In this case, $1.20 in late fees to the library.
As always, your mileage may vary. These book bloggers, whose opinions I respect (even when we disagree), had other views of Freedom:
- Wendy from Caribou’s Mom said: “I was impressed by his characterizations and impeccable skill at the craft of writing. At times I found myself laughing out loud at Franzen’s sardonic sense of humor; but mostly I found myself marveling at the genius of his prose.”
- Carrie from Nomad Reader said: “Freedom is a novel I respected by an author I admire for his writing, observation, storytelling and expansive use of theme; I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.”
- Jennifer from 5 Minutes for Books said: “Because of a satisfying conclusion which wrapped up these characters’ stories, the strong voice of each character, relevant observations of society today, in a story told with honesty and a good amount of humor, I give this a solid 4+ star rating. I’m glad I read it.”
FTC disclosure: see above; borrowed from the library.