Having loved Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, I was torn whether to be excited or worried that Freedom could live up to, or surpass, his previous novel. Happily, it has; though it took the entire book to prove it to me. While he writes great non-fiction, his novels truly impress and solidify his as one of my favorite authors.
As always, Franzen’s writing is complex yet very readable and packs a punch by encapsulating the human experience through the different eyes of the multitude of characters. He has an uncanny knack for creating real-life people that captivate the reader, going beyond mere characters to make the stories feel as if they are about people that you might know. With the novel spanning across multiple decades and a couple of generations, Franzen conveys the perspectives at various points in life with great success.
Patty and Walter Berglund are the two main characters around which the story revolves. In addition to marriage and family, friendship is another key theme throughout. Walter’s friend Richard Katz plays the pivotal role of friend and foe, as many friendships teeter between admiration and competition. Jealously dances among all three as each wants to be the best and to self-indulge in their own desires and having met in college, their history is long and deep and complicated.
Since Patty and Walter never enjoyed the families that they grew up with, both strive to be better than them and create a loving family of their own. They have a son and a daughter, and for a while the family dynamic is certainly enviable. But life gets in the way and outside forces act upon Patty and Walter, complicating their endeavors. As much as they try to achieve perfection with their kids, it isn’t that simple. During the teen years, their son Joey gets the brunt of the animosity and disapproval as he pushes Patty, and by proximity Walter, away and in her stubbornness she retaliates. In later years, during her college years, their daughter Jessica then retreats and is held at arms’ length by Walter out of his stubbornness. As history repeats itself, the kids become adults quickly and end up raising themselves as their parents had when growing up. Yet Joey and Jessica each are their own person, and polar opposites with completely divergent and passionate lives.
Environmentalism pervades the novel, as Walter fights to preserve the lives of wild birds in any way that he can. He puts his political drive and intelligence to work for a nature conservation reserve, which even though it is his life’s dream, there is considerable pressure and stress that frustrates him to no end. Once again, life does not work as desired. It’s in these times of struggle that force Walter and Patty to grapple with themselves and in some instances to veer from each other. Much of the novel is a roller coaster between not only Walter and Patty but also what each wants from their lives, which don’t always mesh and finally pushes them to a breaking point. Due to the drama, at times it’s a sad, tough read but as any good love story, love prevails in a unique and meaningful ending.
Part of the charm of the novel is that it spans the 2000s, touching on the turmoils both nationally and internationally for Americans and calls into question the universal struggles of those times. Having been published in 2010, it certainly is a feat that Franzen captured the essence and contemplated the decade with deep interrogation that usually takes more distance from the past to achieve. Franzen showed these tendencies in The Corrections as well but he certainly has expanded his prowess in the years since and demonstrates his true skills as a writer and storyteller. The intricacies that intertwine and bolster the story is amazing and he keeps the overarching momentum going while providing minute looks into each of the character’s cameos throughout their lives. Franzen has turned the volume up and displayed much growth, which I didn’t think possible, since his last novel–so I can hardly wait for his next. Perhaps it won’t be too long from now since it took me a while to get to this one.
Recommended?: Yes, most certainly. Anyone could enjoy this novel, as it interrogates love and friendship, devotion and betrayal, and right and wrong. It questions how we treat each other and the world around us, especially the people and ideals that we care about the most.