I drank the kool-aid, and it was actually delicious.
A couple of weeks ago, I purchased Freedom for my e-reader, despite having mixed feelings about all the hype the book had received. The novel has turned into quite the media event, sparking controversial conversations about everything from gender bias in literature to the relative value of the author’s eyeglasses. Then Oprah named it her book club pick, adding fuel to the mass media fire. For some perverse reason, when a book arouses this much hoopla my first reaction is to shun it. But several book bloggers whom I trusted had good things to say. Besides, the plot interested me – I’m always about books that take an in depth look at family dynamics.
So, I bit the bullet and 478 pages later, I’m glad I did.
Although Freedom isn’t what you’d call a “feel good” novel, it’s a fascinating, in-depth look at one American family and the ways in which the modern world leaves its mark upon them. Like every American, each member of the Berglund clan is seeking their own version of freedom, and as so often happens in families, their methods overlap and contradict one another with disastrous results. As Franzen writes, “the personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”
And it sours indeed for Walter and Patty Berglund, who started their marriage in the 1970’s filled with upwardly mobile middle class hope and optimism. But Patty, once a college basketball star, becomes lost and unhappy in her role of suburban housewife and mother. Her long harbored infatuation with Walter’s friend, a rock star named Richard, becomes a dangerous obsession. Walter, a rather naive but successful corporate do-gooder, seems blind to Patty’s pain and unhappines, until an obsession of his own later becomes his undoing.
Of the couples two children, it’s son Joey who most exemplifies the “young American” of today, with his relentless committment to individuation and entitlement. The reader has a modicum of hope for daughter Jessica, who seems of all the Berglunds to have a good head on her shoulders. Not surprisingly, in this dark novel, Jessica’s appearances are sporadic, and Franzen keeps his eagle eye trained on the rest of the Berglunds as the family unit spirals into extinction.
Franzen’s writing is masterful, although the format of the book is massive, and at times the narrative gets bogged down in the characters intricate self-justifications. His examination of American family life in the 21st century is fascinating, cynical though it might be. He took no pity on the poor hapless Berglund’s, letting them stumble into one egregious error after another in their relationships and in their life choices.
Is Freedom great modern American literature and worthy of all the hype surrounding it? Only time will tell, I suppose. But I think it’s an accurate look at the minute workings of an American family in the 21st century, one that will hold up as the decades pass.
Now tell me, have you read this “great American novel”? What did you think? And how do you feel about books that generate all kinds of publicity (good or bad)? Does it make you more – or less- inclined to read them?