Book Review: *Freedom* by Jonathan Franzen (DNF)

  • Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (August 31, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312600846
  • 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.


    22 comments to Book Review: *Freedom* by Jonathan Franzen (DNF)

    • *sigh* Well, my book club is reading this for February, and I approach it with mixed feelings. The leader of the club sorta forced this selection on us, which isn’t helping my attitude. I read The Corrections, and it was like labor. Eventually I decided I liked it, but that was after hundreds of pages and angst. A friend of mine read Freedom and it turned her off of reading anything else for weeks, it annoyed her so much. So I await my audiobook from the library. I hope the narrator is good at least…

    • Closing in on page 400 now. I really appreciate the writing and just how real the characters are. It’s taking a LONG time to read (especially with approaching holidays), and I’ve gotten frustrated a couple of times, but I hope to finish this weekend.

    • Sandy – It doesn’t bode well if you thought THE CORRECTIONS was sluggish … let me know how you enjoy the audio.

      JoAnn – it may well be that the pressure of a 14-day borrow added to my frustration. Maybe I’ll pick up my own copy … when the paperback comes out!

    • Linda

      Suggesting Mr. Franzen is “a bit wordy,” is like Emperor Joseph telling Mozart “…there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it’ll be perfect.” Also, like much excellent art in any medium, Franzen’s last two novels have been controversial — or, generated “accompanying hoopla,” as you’ve colorfully described it. PS: You use too many exclamation points….for my taste.

    • I bought this book a few weeks ago because I loved The Corrections, but since then I have heard some of the same complaints about it that you make. I actually looked at it last night and was going to give it a read, but for some reason, I found my enthusiasm had waned and I let it be in favor of something else. Now I don’t know when I am going to get to it. You are right when you say that it is a hefty tome, and I am not sure that I am all that excited about it anymore. I loved your honest and playful thoughts on it here, and I will have to let you know if I ever pick it up. Thanks!

    • I haven’t been overly excited about this book because I wasn’t a huge fan of The Corrections. I do have Freedom on audio – maybe it will be better that way.

    • I have heard enough about this book for me to label it a DNS – do not start…

    • I read The Corrections because I was still reading Oprah book choices(I don’t anymore) and don’t really remember it except that I wasn’t overwhelmed. I think I’m with Rhapsody and will put it on my DNS list.

    • diana mack

      i HATED the corrections…it was so long ago i can’t remember why..but based on what you said and my memory….this is one book i’ll pass on….plus i really thought he was an idiot the first time with oprah..way too full of himself

    • Linda – I appreciate your metaphor to Mozart (and a possible – but unlikely – criticism of his music), and recognize that controversy generates discussion (and sales). But, too many exclamation points?! Only 3 in the entire blog post (two of those in the “dramatic” paragraph).

      zibilee – Especially since you loved THE CORRECTIONS, I encourage you to start FREEDOM. My opinion was fairly intense because I stuck with the book for over 200 pages; had I given up after 50 pages I may not have been as put out by it.

      Kathy – you and Sandy can do a “listen-along” together :)

      rhapsody – DNS is a new-to-me acronym. There are some popular books that I might apply it to (one of the benefits of blogging my thoughts about books is that I am much more aware of what I like – or don’t – in a book)

      Martha – the latest Oprah pick (Great Expectations // A Tale of Two Cities) hasn’t shot to the top of the charts – too many people already own it?

      diana – I didn’t see him on Oprah, only read about it after the fact. She’s had her share of contention with contemporary authors, hasn’t she?!

    • Well, I loved your review even though I am sorry you didn’t love the book (your review made me laugh – well done!). I can honestly see why the book is getting some negative press – so I don’t begrudge anyone who heaved this tome aside and said “enough.” That said, I really connected with Franzen’s writing…so I’ll read his work again. Thanks for the link love (and glad you still respect my opinion despite perhaps being led astray by it this time!!)

    • I have been trying to listen to the audio version but have not been able to get ‘hooked’. I even started over again from the beginning thinking I had missed something somewhere.

      I just finished Safe Haven and did not want to pause it when I was supposed to be doing something else. This one I keep thinking I missed something cause I don’t understand where the story is taking me.

      Think this will be one of the first audio book DNFs for me. Audio books don’t take a lot of effort to finish but this feels like a treadmill that is getting me nowhere.

    • I read it on my Kindle, and I’m trying to remember where page 217 would have left you. Although I didn’t love the “autobiography” section, it did a wonderful job setting up the present tense, when the novel goes from micro to macro and attacks current events with a vengeance. I liked the second half much better, but the second half wouldn’t have worked without the Berglund detail. Looking back, I’m still glad I read it, but it’s not one I recommend much to others. In a somewhat related note, I’m attempting Wolf Hall for the third time, and despite how good everyone says it is, I do not have love for it (and may not have the desire to finish it). Ugh.

    • I read The Corrections and didn’t see what all the fuss was about! His writing is just not my style! I doubt I will bother with this one! I’m not really interested and there are too many other great books to get to! Loved your review though!

      How is that for exclamation points, Linda?!

    • Wendy – thanks. I’m comfortable agreeing to disagree :) That’s one of the biggest benefits of blogging (for me) – that I’ve fine-tuned my knowledge about what appeals (or not) to me. Having one OK and one less-than-OK read from this author, I’m not likely to read him again. Funny, if it weren’t for the build-up, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up (maybe I don’t trust my instincts enough). Happy to link to your thoughtful review!

      Dogberry Pages – I wondered if the audio might have been a better route for me to go with this one … it seems the answer is ‘no’

      Carrie – at 217 we were to the present day (past the autobiography). Walter was meeting w/people re: save the (what was the animal?) … I have WOLF HALL on my shelf, but haven’t tried it yet. I wonder how I’ll do with it …

      bookmagic – that’s exactly it! I never should have picked up FREEDOM, knowing the author’s writing isn’t a good fit for me. Lesson learned.

    • Barbara

      I just finished reading FREEDOM. I’m missing the characters already. I was moved to tears in the last chapter.

    • Love the review. I have absolutely no desire to read this, and you’ve confirmed my feeling.

    • Linda

      bookmagic….all I can say is “WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Barbara, I miss the characters as well, especially Joey — I love a good redemption story….

    • Kathleen

      This book definitely seems to polarize readers. I have a copy on my shelf but haven’t cracked it open yet. I was planning to read The Corrections first even though I know one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. After reading your review I am a bit more tentative about picking it up too quickly. At a minimum it sounds like I need to have the proper time to devote to reading it.

    • So sue me — I never had any intention to pick this up. (shrug)

    • Shame that you didn’t get on with Freedom. I couldn’t get enough of it. It is certainly one which seems to divide people, and I would say to those unsure about trying it to give it a chance. You can read my thoughts on Freedom at

    • Barbara, Linda and Graham – so nice to know that you all enjoyed FREEDOM more than I did. Clearly Franzen has an audience (I’ve simply learned that I am not it!). Graham – thanks for linking to your review.

      iubookgirl, Kathleen, and Beth F – no, not enough time to read every bestseller; we have to pick and choose those that are the best ‘fit’ (or be willing to take the time to experiment. which I did. with varying results)

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