Review: Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

If you listen to NPR, then interviews with Jonathan Franzen may have wormed their way into your consciousness as he hit every talkshow, selling his book, Freedom. If you don’t listen to NPR, Freedom was a book written by Jonathan Franzen, published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux under the Picador imprint. The novel revolves around a Midwestern family, the Berglund’s, and chronicles the ways in which they break apart and come together. Imagine the ways lakes thaw and refreeze in the north, that’s a good metaphor for the Berglund’s. In subject manner, the American Midwestern family under pressure, it’s similar to The Corrections.

Obviously, due to the title, it’s clear that freedom is explored in the novel. Also, competitiveness is another concept developed in the pages. What does freedom mean? How is freedom given? How does freedom develop? We are a nation that holds freedom as sacred even though we look the other way as freedom is restricted. Freedom taken to the extreme is lawlessness or anarchy. When children are given the freedom to be who they want to be, that doesn’t mean they will be the people their parents wish them to be. That is the case for Walter and Patty’s son Joey.

Joey grabs for his freedom and challenges his parent’s authority from the outset in Freedom. His parents try to stop it, but aren’t supportive of one another. On the one hand, they love seeing their child so independent and grown up. On the other hand, they hate being challenged and not needed. To make things worse is the competition, which develops between Patty and Walter.

How do you win in a marriage? Or for that matter, how do you win as a parent? When someone is ultra-competitive and then moves out of that environment, how do they cope? Patty was a star basketball player who sustains a career-ending injury. In order to compete with her sisters and parents back east, she decides to settle into the role of homemaker and mother. It goes against the feminist, high-achieving ideals of her family and one way to win is to compete for a different prize. While Patty is not engaged in the arts, like her sisters, she has a husband, a beautiful home, and two children: things which signify success in many parts of the country. Still, this need for competition evolves as Patty wants to be the parent who is most loved by her children. She doesn’t back up Walter. She indulges Joey’s misbehavior. Patty gets the kids to laugh at Walter. In that way, she seems similar to Gary’s wife in The Corrections.

This competition is what drives the family apart. Joey, realizing his relationship with his mother is not normal, moves out and on with his life. Facing that defeat, the family soon moves to D.C. The signs of Patty’s success have all been torn down. Throw in a love triangle with a rockstar friend and things become even more complicated.

Richard Katz, the rockstar, is the other main component in the book. While the novel is about Walter, Patty, and to an extent their children (Jessica is more like an afterthought compared to Joey), it’s also about Walter and Patty’s relationship with Richard. Walter and Richard love each other and compete with one another. For Richard, women and music come easy. He’s handsome, a jerk, and seems to have no problem talking women into bed and then leaving. It drives Walter crazy, but he loves his friend. He also wants to do better than his friend and sees a chance by becoming involved with a billionaire who wants to establish a non-profit, under Walter’s leadership, to provide habitat in West Virginia for the Cerulean Warbler. The only catch is that before the nature preserve is established, the coal will be mined. In addition to the close friendship between the two men, Patty also loves Richard and is lusted after by Richard. As things disintegrate, it’s unclear if anyone will make it out of the relationship unscathed. This is especially true as Walter becomes obsessed with removing “feral cats” from the environment around his cabin.

Freedom is a wonderfully rich novel. The characters are complex, interesting, and the writing is superb. This book is definitely one to read.

Tim Lepczyk

Writer, Technologist, and Librarian.

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