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Freedom: A Novel Hardcover – 31 August 2010
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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.
- Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First edition (31 August 2010)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 576 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0374158460
- ISBN-13 : 978-0374158460
- Dimensions : 16.28 x 4.55 x 23.57 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 902,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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I was, though, utterly mesmerised by the writing - the prose, and the storytelling, of course, but most of all the constantly surprising and interesting riffs on all sorts of subthemes - in politics, economics, environmentalism, family life, community life, etc. I liked so many of them, and loved the one on cats.
I mentionded Dickens, and I suppose the most surprising thing about this book is how old fashioned it really is and how modern it really feels. In this last regard, his treatment of sex is exemplary. Its insistent and troubling nature is there for all to see (and feel!).All its variations are graphically allowed their spot in the limelight (at least the heterosexual ones - the strong, male loves are convncingly matey, and certainly no basis for a life), but it is surrounded by neither moralising mystery nor sub-teen prurience or porn. There is also no feeling of having a writerly sex interlude, it is all part of the grand story. Is that what modern sex is?
It would be easy to dislike Patty but I didn't. She's an innocent who, when she does bad things, does them not out of malice but almost accidentally. Her one great gift, as a basketball player, is taken from her by injury. Mild-mannered Walter, meanwhile, with his endless concerns for the environment and zero-population growth, matures into a man nearly burned alive by anger.
At first I found the prose style annoying, with its very long, rambling, unstructured sentences (I found one that went on for two pages), but I got used to it after a while and it ceased to bother me. The chapters are also long, each centred on one member of the small group of main characters, some of them a sort of autobiography written by Patty, which will come back to bite her in the end.
This is a profoundly sad book: people are unhappy; government is corrupt; big business amoral and self-seeking. The fact that it manages to end on a note of hope is a small blessing. Franzen's message may be the same as Forster's in Howard's End -- that what matters is personal relations and being kind to each other.
But you don't read it for the plot. You read it for the depth of its commentary on everyday life. Other reviewers here have compared Franzen here with Updike and Tolstoy, but for me it was more like Richard Yates and Revolutionary Road. It was about the disappointments and road-blocks we face in our everyday choices - about the kind of work that we choose to do, about the choices of life partner we make and the compromises we let ourselves into in making those choices. So, none of us is free. Yet we persuade ourselves that we are making the right choices - we delude ourselves that we have done it right. So, Walter the environmentalist gets into bed with big oil persuading himself with his potty Green plan that it is best for a little bird, but the loss of a mountain compared to the tiny gain for the bird is obvious to everyone except Walter and his beautiful assistant - whom he also gets into bed with, leaving his wife Patty to explore her own compromise in having married Walter and not having gone with the much sexier Richard, all of those years ago. And when she does eventually go with Richard, it all falls apart of course. Moral: they would have been better staying with their compromises; better not pretending to themselves that something better - something more unequivocally 'them' - was tantalisingly within reach.
Like the other reviewers I was surprised ('disappointed' would be too strong a word) by the way that Franzen didn't manage to change the style and register of Patty's writing from his own, apart from the occasional rather gross clue (such as Patty's use of scare quotes). And (having the uncorrected version) I was surprised that he thought Cypress was a place. But, hey, it shows he is human and we can surely celebrate.
Probably the best novel I've ever read (apart from The Corrections).