Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen

Nine years after his last novel, The Corrections, wowed the literary scene, Jonathan Franzen is back. His new novel, Freedom, was eagerly anticipated for months before its release, and quickly made numerous "best" lists. And while there's absolutely no disputing his ability to examine the modern American family, for me, this book fell short of topping his previous achievement.

Patty and Walter Berglund are a happily and proudly liberal married couple in Minnesota. Patty, a former college basketball star, has spent most of her marriage taking care of the couple's two children, while upright Walter, a proud feminist and champion of equal rights, works at 3M. But while the Berglunds seem like the perfect family to the outside world, their son's decision to move in with their conservative next-door-neighbors and abandon his family triggers a chain reaction of crises and recriminations that shakes the entire family to its core. The book follows the stories of Patty, Walter, their son, Joey, and Walter's college roommate, erstwhile rock singer Richard Katz, whose presence in the Berglunds' lives is both welcomed and resented. And where each individual winds up is very different from where they started out.

I wanted to love this book. While Franzen has a unique ability to make you care about unsympathetic characters, I found there were too many in this book to get emotionally invested in. You get to understand what makes each character tick (in tremendous detail), but even knowing what they've been through didn't make me warm to them completely. And in many situations, Franzen went way overboard in his exploration of certain narrative threads (Joey's strange relationship with his girlfriend, Walter's obsession with preservation of an endangered bird and with population control) to the point where I nearly lost interest. There was never a doubt in my mind that Franzen is a great writer; however, in this book, his strength as a storyteller didn't quite register for me as it has in the past. Some have loved this book and some have hated it; I fall somewhere in between.

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