Freedom ~ Jonathan Franzen

Back in late-August, early-September I read quite a few novels and had planned a string of reviews. One of those books was Jonathan Franzen’s recent release Freedom. I wanted to offer insight for the novel and, perhaps, for Franzen as well. Then, as I am sure much of the Western World is aware, Oprah announced her newest book club selection: Freedom.

What the hell? Between the global excitement over a new Franzen novel and the Oprah endorsement, what could I possibly add or offer that hasn’t already been said or written? Of course I expected the book to be popular and garner much media attention. Franzen, after all, has been elevated to the status of Great American Novelist thanks to The Corrections but, during the interim between finishing Freedom and the brouhaha that has ensued surrounding both Franzen and his newest novel, I have found each passing day bringing continual and escalating Franzen coverage – interviews; reviews; readings; book lists; blog ponderings; the great eye-glasses theft of 2010; the great eye-glasses recovery of 2010; Franzen-penned revelations. It is a whole lot of Franzen to absorb. I have contemplated writing the author, sharing my suggestion of an all-Franzen, all the time 24hr cable channel to, you know, take absolute and full advantage of the Franzen-crazy gravy-train. Never mind those buckets of cash. Train-cars filled with cash is so much…more. Why not? (She asks, not just a little bit sarcastically.)

So, Freedom, read it, or don’t. You probably will eventually because it is ubiquitous. Do I recommend it? Sure. It is a not bad book. I liked it better than The Corrections but I still find I am more a fan of Franzen, the person, than Franzen, the writer. His prose, to me, feels laboured; as though it has been ploddingly struggled over. It has been nine years since The Corrections was released, so maybe I am not too far off? There is, also, a certain fluidity absent from Franzen’s writing. Both of these contributed to my middling assessment of Freedom. I wasn’t overly invested in any of the characters and I could take time away from the book without feeling a pressing urge to return to it immediately. I found the concept for the story interesting and believable, to a point, but the whole of the novel wasn’t the treasure of a read I was hoping for. I know my opinion is not shared by many and I am not purposefully trying to sway you away from Freedom or be anti-Franzen. On the contrary (who actually says that phrase???). Franzen is a smart man and though given to truthfulness interpreted as harshness, I find him highly likable. So much so (who actually says THAT phrase??) I really, really wanted to love Freedom. I didn’t love it, sadly. But maybe you will? It’s hard to be one person flying the homemade “It’s a’ight.” sign, in a sea of “It’s the novel of the century!!” neon. Ah, well. I still like the dude, even if I don’t love his book.

Excerpt from the book jacket:

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?

In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us 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.

I will end with a quote from Jonathan Jones, of The Guardian: “Freedom [is] the novel of the century. A formidable and harrowing work, Jonathan Franzen’s new book is on a different plane from other contemporary fiction.”

Maybe you can now see my problem. With affirmations like that, it’s hard not to feel a little let down.

61 thoughts on “Freedom ~ Jonathan Franzen

  1. I agree with your assessment. It’s a good, not a great book. Throughout it all I couldn’t figure out what he was getting at — that even the best of us…the most idealistic, are corrupted, whether for money or for a convoluted route as a means to an end. (big coal as a way to preserve a bird spieces) Either way, like you, I was not overly invested in the characters, although I haev to admit it was a page-turner.

  2. A friend has loaned me a copy of Freedom. I really liked his first book, Corrections. WE all have different tastes and that’s a good thing for the book business.

  3. On the contrary: I use the phrase “on the contrary” quite routinely! 😉

    Nice review. I’m not a huge Franzen fan, but since he’s an Oprah pick, well … actually, I tend to look at that as more of a reason not to read it!

    • Thank you Mikalee. I tend to steer away from the Oprah-endorsed reads too. Something about cattle…. 😀
      I appreciate your visit and comments.

  4. Phrases like “…is on a different plane from other contemporary fiction…” make me think perhaps people don’t quite understand it. And since they don’t quite get it they are assuming it must be brilliant. (If this book is over my head it must be something amazing.) I find a lot of art that isn’t quite accessible gets classified as brilliant. Personally I feel art that isn’t highly accessible can’t have that large or lasting of an impact on a person — or the culture as a whole.


    • I don’t think the novel is over heads, Crystal. You make a valid point, though. If something is inaccessible or not understood there are really only two options: call it shite or call it brilliant. And, since Franzen was anointed “America’s Greatest Novelist” I don’t think there will be too much shite-slinging going on. 😀

      Thanks for visiting, and for your comments!

  5. This is a book I have not read yet although I did suggest it for my book group. I find many of Oprah’s picks have more to do with the gothic side of America – of horridly abusive situations and complicated deaths. That is what has kept me from wanting to read Freedom. Thanks for the info, good post. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

    • Hi Karyn. I think it could make for an interesting discussion, should your group select the novel as one of its reads. There is a lot going on in the book. I don’t think I would categorize Freedom, or Franzen, as sensationalizing negative situations (“Gothic side of America”), but I do think Franzen has an strong ability to capture the dark sides of human nature in an honest manner. I do think it is worth reading but I don’t think it is five-star greatness. If you de read it, I would be interested in your thoughts. Cheers and thanks for visiting!

  6. daynali says:

    I have to admit that I was a little bit worried when I finished this book. Was it that the reviews were overexadurated, or that I just didn’t understand what the hell was going on? I felt like the book was adjective soup with a sprinkle of story line and am really undecided as to whether I would reccomend it.

    Thanks for the interesting read – i’m glad to hear that i’m not alone!

  7. florence says:

    I’m about 150 pages in and thinking about putting it aside and moving on to another book. It just hasn’t hooked me at all. I like the way it’s written, and I really like Franzen but am not loving the book like I hoped I would.

    Great post by the way. And congrats for making it to Freshly Pressed!

    – Florence

    • Thank you , Florence. I can understand your sentiments. Generally, once I start a book, I am committed and will finish. I do think the novel is worth reading, but I don’t share the same raving reviews and gushy love as so many others do. I was okay as a whole, but Franzen does have brilliant moments within. I appreciate your comments and I am glad you stopped by for a read. 🙂

  8. I did love The Corrections. Have heard mixed reviews about Freedom (It’s better/It’s not as good). Thanks for this excellent review. I will read Freedom, but right now I have stack of books in my “to read” pile.

    • Hi Renee. Thanks for taking the time to read my post.
      I think, if you liked The Corrections, you will appreciate this novel too. I was not actually a fan of that novel but intend to reread it next year. Ah, yes. The TBR pile. Mine has morphed beyond a pile, really, to an unruly state of being. And I look forward to each book, too. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here. 🙂

  9. I was frustrated by this book because each character seemed to be a caricature of all the others. It’s too polemical to be a good read. There’s a passage near the end where Franzen writes about how the cold passed from Lalitha into Walter. That made the previous 500 pages worthwhile, but not by much. If you drink good wine too soon it’s just grape juice. Wait a few years and see if Franzen still holds up. I doubt he will.

    • Sean, these are very thoughtful comments and well written. For me, my controversy-meter wasn’t triggered by Franzen. I do agree about the caricatures, though. It is a fine line between an interesting character and a cartoon and some of Franzen’s people had moments of ridiculousness, for sure. I think Franzen offers an interesting study. He is interesting enough as a person to weather scrutiny and debate. Being a novelist, then, becomes the after-thought. “Oh, and by the way, he writes books.” I still maintain Franzen has an insight into the foibles and underbelly of human nature. The abilities of insight, which he does have, cannot be taught and his writing can always get better, given time. I think there is a great novel in Franzen but we haven’t seen it yet. Now, if only he could write as poetically as Per Petterson or Vendela Vida…then I would be in love, fully. Thanks for visiting, Sean and for sharing your thoughts. Cheers~

    • That is funny, Tom. It is the North American cover (I am in Canada) and it is, admittedly, peculiar. I would love to see the process that got the powers that be to this final version of cover design. Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts! 😀 Cheers.

  10. I’ve written down Franzen and Freedom on a piece of scrap paper here at the library. I’m also going to subscribe to your blog. I’m not a groupy type, but I am a writer and I’m glad you’re here. Not because I like to talk about being a writer, because it is my only superstition. You know, talking about it.

    Thoroughly inspiring day to you.

    • Thanks! I actually share that same superstition. It is the only one. No, I lie; I also don’t like the one about putting a hat on a bed. Ack! Of course, it may just be a distraction I lob to get off the subject of talking about writing. I appreciate you taking the time to read my post and hope you find what I write of interest. 😀

  11. I started the book about a month ago. After reading the first two-thirds of the text, my bookmark has barely moved in weeks. I found the book to be too fragmented–I think this is what creates that “no pressing urge to return to reading” dynamic for me. I do plan to finish it. I keep hoping it might come together brilliantly in the end–though I think you’ve confirmed my suspicions that it won’t. Thanks for the review 🙂

    • I would encourage you to persevere, Cheekie. I am glad to have read the novel and, as I wrote, still find Franzen, the dude, intellectually appealing. That he hasn’t nailed the Great Novel yet doesn’t worry me. I do think he has it in him…I just hope it isn’t another 9 years until the next one. Thanks for visiting and for commenting. 😀

  12. Reading through the other comments I realized I didn’t say why I didn’t like the book! I found that I could not identify or empathize with any of the characters.They all seemed fairly unlikeable, and I really didn’t care what happened to them.

    I am not sorry that I did read the book though. Jonathan Franzen does write well when he’s not lecturing about the various issues that his characters are obsessed about.

    I haven’t read The Corrections yet. Is it worth it?

    • Hi, again, Lisa. I get what you are saying. I have often heard people comment about the lack of empathy in a character or a lack of connection with a character (or characters) which will trigger a dismissal of the novel. I have certainly come across my share of unreliable or unlikeable characters, but I sort of have a soft spot in my heart for them. If they are written well, they are not one-dimensional and add many layers of interest to the story-telling. I don’t think Franzen quite got there with Freedom, unfortunately. You are right about Franzen having lovely passages and moments in this book. The inconsistency was too bad because I would be thinking “Now, c’mon, you just wowed me a little bit. What happened?” I have to wonder how much of it is the editing process, though. Having had some insight to the publishing industry, I know what we the book lovers read is often a very different version of the original manuscript. I don’t know if this is for better or for worse, but it would be cool to be privy to Franzen’s opinion here.

      I read The Corrections so long ago that my opinion is neither fresh nor well supported, at this point. I own the novel so intend to re-read it next year. My feeling is that it was an okay novel. Not great. The fact that it was on so many “Best of the Decade” lists, last year, boggled my mind because it was just such an ordinary book. This may be the beauty of what captured so many hearts and minds, though.

      • I have no problem with flawed characters – I’m one myself 😉 – but there’s got to be something about a character which makes me care about what happens to them.

        Don’t know if you’ve ever read any of Henning Mankell’s (Swedish author)books? His characters are always flawed, but they’re still likeable.

        I agree, that Freedom could have done with some editing. I feel the same way about the last Wally Lamb book. I wonder if editors have such a high regard for authors like this that they are afraid to edit them too much? I also wonder whether Franzen and Lamb wouldn’t have written better books if they had written them more quickly? Maybe they’re “over-writing” their books?

        • Hi Lisa. Aren’t we all flawed characters??? 😀 I haven’t read any of the Mankell books but have heard good things. Your point about over-writing is interesting and has given me something to ponder this morning.

  13. I loved the book! It felt to me like Franzen was giving himself the difficult but entertaining assignment of skating along the edge of making characters so flawed that the reader can barely empathize, and then turning them into decent human beings that we love by the end of the novel. I think he’s all that and a bag o’ chips.

    • Hi Tanya. I love all that and a bag o’ chips :D. I had no issues with the way he wrote his characters. As I mentioned to Lisa, in a previous comment, I like flawed characters and unreliable narrators. One of my favourite reads from this past year was We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Talk about one messed up character. Shriver was wholly incredible with her writing in this book. But, going back to Franzen…I personally think his two novels have been the warm-up to his best work…I just don’t want to wait nine more years! Thanks for reading my post and for taking the time to comment, Tanya!

  14. jaswrites says:

    A great post! Very enlightening.
    I feel somewhat akward when i read modern fiction so I haven’t read much of it. Postmodernism is a unique but somewhat strange style to me – it certainly is good when it is good. I remember when I read The Great Gatsby just about 2 – 3 weeks ago. In the beginning, it felt as if it lacked emotion but when the story ended, I felt as if the novel was certainly good.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Jas. I hope you continue to seek out post-modern literature. There certainly are some wonderful, wonderful stories to be read.

  15. I think it’s kind of silly to steer away from books just because Oprah added it to her book club. I heard the book was a masterpiece! Even my pretentious, and might I add British, professor said it was fantastic. I guess I’ll have to read it before I defend it, but I just thought that the Oprah argument was a bit much.

    • Hello Jenni. I do understand what you are saying and I really appreciate your response to my post. I guess I would just feel like one more head in the herd, going along with what one is told, were I to pick-up every book Oprah endorses. I think she often selects very interesting books and definitely puts a great deal of thought into her selections. I guess what I am saying is there are so many other books and authors in the world and the Oprah-endorsed selections, well, they are going to fine and won’t miss one less reader. I don’t permanently shun her selections – if they are of interest to me – but I will wait for the air to clear before making my approach. Thanks again for visiting my blog and sharing your thoughts. It was cool of you to do. 🙂

  16. Hi Jojo,

    I have had Freedom sitting on my shelf for a couple of months now, and I have been itching to read it. It is one of the very few books that I got to buy for myself, as I am usually reading ARC’s from publishers for my own blog, The Hurley Edition ( I’ve been naughty and dormant for a little while because of a rather big life change (going into a wheelchair), but that’s not the point, the point is, if you go to my blog it looks horribly neglected, but that’s why.

    Anyway, I really wanted to say that I was surprised and somewhat intrigued by your take on this book. Now, I have yet to read this book, but I’ve been so wanting to for some time now, as I didn’t get an ARC of it. What intrigued me the most was your honesty about the whole thing. He seems to have materialized out of nowhere as the next big American writer. I haven’t seen this much hype about a literary author for a very long time. Philip Roth, perhaps? I don’t know….I’m Canadian as well. (Alberta) So I’m not so sure about the whole American thing and their authors.

    I am now more interested than ever to read this book, simply by discovering your blog and reading your take on it all.

    I too try to take myself seriously as a writer, although I teach at a University until such a time that I can get an agent to look at my first novel. Until then, I do my best to review books on my blog, and I’m starting to write for Suite 101. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but it will give me something to focus on in my writing life.

    I love your work. I too, am on Goodreads, Librarything.

    Take care and keep it coming. Your voice is addictive and original.

    ~ todd
    The Hurley Edition

    • Hi Todd. Than you so much for your kind words and encouragement. I was lucky enough to receive Freedom as an ARC. I read it promptly but then, as described, the whole world went a little coo-coo-ca-choo for the novel and its author. Not that this wasn’t expected, but the spheres of media seemed inundated with all-Franzen, all-the-time. So I sat on it for a bit. It does seem my thoughts are resonating, which is nice. The “writing life” is interesting. I like to think I take myself seriously but, really, I don’t think I do. Yet. Like you, I do book reviews and article work because of the focus and chance to work on the writing skills, though, truth be told, this type of writing is much easier and comes with far less angst than creative writing (for me). Ah, GoodReads…I do enjoy it there and moderate a cool little group. My TBR list has become a mountain, thanks to all of the suggestions grom GR friends. I hope you find your groove while you resurrect your blog. I will definitely check it out. Thanks for visiting my blog and for your great feedback and thoughts. 😀 JoJo

  17. I found the book a fast, easy read (particularly on the heels of Roberto Bolano’s 2666) but not the Great American Novel I’d been expecting, not by a long shot. For one thing, I didn’t like any of the characters (the fact that I found the book a page-turner in spite of them says a lot about Franzen’s talent). Patty in particular was problematic, as Franzen painted her as a psychologically clueless jock for two thirds of the book and a paragon of sensitivity and social relations for the last third. Nevertheless Franzen excels at capturing contemporary anxieties, from parental demise to the environment; that, not his prose style, is his gift.

    Earlier this year, I re-read The Corrections for the first time since its publication–and was blown away by it. As much as I admired The Corrections the first time around, it now seems to me a work of genius–and easily the best novel of the previous decade. Maybe Freedom will strike me the same way; I’m planning to re-read it in 8 or 9 years to find out.

    • Hello Hope. I also have a copy of The Corrections and intend to read it again (the first time for me too , since its publication). Your comments are thoughtful and I appreciate you having taken the time to visit and share your feelings with me. Thank you.

  18. docutuesday says:

    Interesting review. I JUST finished the Corrections and while I enjoyed it quite a bit, I did find that I could leave it for a while without a burning need to return. I figured I should take a bit of a breather from Franzen’s writing before diving into Freedom, but I will eventually.

    • Heh, heh, heh!! You crack me up, Erik! I believe I am a little old for that ship, but it creates a good visual when I close my eyes…”Ahhhh! Nice!!!”

  19. Caroline says:

    Thanks for the review Jen! Perhaps there will be a movie, if it is so ubiquitous? i may wait for that…

  20. I came across your blog on the GoodReads poll. One of my favorite poets, Adebe D.A., is from Toronto. Do you know her?

    Anyway, Franzen. I felt punished reading this book, such a shame because I laughed my way through The Corrections. I warn everyone away from it.

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