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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Franzen and Freedom and One Effed Up Family: A Review

The quest for limitless freedom is a common theme in literature — from Jack Kerouac's character in On the Road to George Clooney's connectionless corporate downsizer in Up In The Air (via Walter Kirn's novel). Just about every red-blooded American has fantasized about the attractiveness of no attachments, of total privilege to do whatever is wanted whenever. But, as Jonathan Franzen explains in one of the more profound passages in his fascinating new novel Freedom: "The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should that dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage."

And so what we have here is 550 immensely readable pages devoted to the idea of exploring the limits of freedom within the context of oft-damaged and then re-mended relationships between a family and one particular friend. At what point does one person's freedom infringe upon another's? And at that point, is freedom still freedom? Indeed, these questions have fluid, multi-hued answers, especially as time passes and relationships change. But one thing about this book is clear: Many years from now, this novel will no doubt be cited as the prime example of the Franzen oeuvre: stories about families that aren't so much dysfunctional as problem-heavy.

And liberal environmentalist Walter Berglund, his wife Patty, and their long-time musician friend Richard Katz, are certainly besought with problems; but these problems are generally a result of their own poor choices, and the resulting secrets. In fact, another question the novel poses is to what degree do families have freedom to keep secrets from each other?

That question and the delicious conflict it creates is what makes the meat of the novel — and what makes it un-putdownable. Will these secrets be revealed, and if so, how will the revelation effect the characters' relationships? Franzen is a master at rendering these relationships — the ebb and flow, the who-needs-whom-more dynamic, the power struggles. Walter and Patty's marriage is the cornerstone of the novel, but how they both relate to Richard provides the intrigue. Walter and Patty's children, Jessica and Joey also flit in and out of the novel, often playing key roles in the side-taking and blame game when things go awry. And their stories are interesting in and of themselves — from the moment teenage Joey tests the limits of his own freedom by moving out of his home to his next-door neighbors'.

So Freedom is highly recommended. It's a long book, yes, but very readable — Franzen's prose flows effortlessly. He's just a joy to read. (By the way, see below for one of my favorite sentences of all time.) But in order to "limit" this novel to 550 pages, Franzen has to spend vast swaths of pages in summary — the one part of the novel, though minor, that was irritating. Just tell me the story, I thought. I'd happily read another 500 pages of this! Also, isn't it sort of clunky to write an entire novel that plumbs the limits of freedom, and then title it "Freedom"? Again, a minor annoyance. So I'd subtract a half a star from my rating: 4.5 out of 5. This is top-shelf contemporary literature. Enjoy it! 

Near-perfect sentence: "He'd lost his good looks, or, more precisely, they had shrunk into a small facial oasis in a desert of sunburned bloat."

31 comments:

  1. Wow! This sounds wonderful. Great review!

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  2. High praise! Did you read The Corrections? Which did you prefer? Was it equally as "un-putdonwable"? I should probably get my hands on this one... it sounds like the book is living up to the hype.

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  3. Hmm, sounds really good! This is the first blogger review I think I've read of it. That sentence made me laugh too. =) I definitely want to read this. I would be sort of surprised if Oprah picked this for her book club only b/c it already has so much hype I wouldn't think it needed more. I'm probably going to get this on my nook, otherwise I'd want to go out and buy a copy before the Oprah sticker gets added to it, lol!

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  4. sometimes even oprah jumps on the bandwagon instead of driving it, but this is sort of like naming harry potter as her next selection. weird.

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  5. Great review, Greg. I don't think I've ever read anyone more attuned to "the ebb and flow" of family relationships, as you put it. Faulkner, maybe? I'm just taking a breather after The Corrections and will then dive into Freedom. Given your review, I know that I'll love it. Ironically, the note about Oprah makes me want to read it less. In other words, in my case at least, Franzen was right!

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  6. Yes! Very well said. The relationships are so spot-on. I'm about half way through now and really enjoying it. Love this little paragraph:

    A herd of male first-years burst out of the dorm and onto the lawn, their voices amplified by beer. "Jo-eeee, Jo-eeee," they lowed affectionately. He nodded to them in cool acknowledgment.

    Hahaha.

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  7. Great review. I'm ashamed to say I still haven't read Corrections, though with all the buzz surrounding Freedom, I'll have to pick it up soon. It stares at me from my shelf every day. I just hope (like Jenny) I can scare up a copy of Freedom before they put the Oprah sticker on it, if it really is her pick.

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  8. People are either hot or cold on Franzen. I happened to love The Corrections and all of that fat mess of a family. I normally will hesitate with the big chunksters, but I flew through it and could have used a little more. I imagine I would find it to be the same with Freedom. Hmmm...I wonder if it is on audio???

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  9. @Julie - Thanks - it definitely didn't suck!

    @Brenna - I did read The Corrections, but I read it nine years ago right after it came out, which means there's too much time between to be able to say which is better. Put it this way: They're both very good.

    @Jenny - Yeah, I feel lucky to have gotten a copy before the stank of the Oprah sticker tarnishes it. ;)

    @Joel - Yep, clearly a case of Oprah jumping on the bandwagon. Or, maybe, she's offering an olive branch for the fiasco last time she picked a Franzen novel.

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  10. @Patrick - Yeah, it seemed a little too cliche to say "if you liked The Corrections, you'll love Freedom." That's surely the case, though. And Philip Roth is the only other writer who comes to mind as writing relationships as well as Franzen - but Roth's are a little, um, different.

    @IngridLola - Ah, yeah - that's a great one too. So many to choose from! Hope you enjoy the rest - looking forward to hearing your take on it!

    @Kerry - Ha - another "boo Oprah" vote. I like it!

    @Sandy - Yeah, I definitely flew through it - you can't help but reading huge chunks at a time because Franzen's sections are often 50-70 pages, and you don't want to stop while you're in the midst of a particular chunk. Yeah, it is a lot like The Corrections in that several hundred more pages would've been great!

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  11. As I suspected, you liked this book a little better than I did, and that makes sense, because one of Franzen's objections to the Oprah pick the first time (for The Corrections) was that he didn't want the book to get a reputation as a book for women. I think he's an accessible novelist who writes a little more for men, and that's rare these days.

    I'll elaborate on this tomorrow at NNP.

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  12. I really enjoyed your review; that sounds so similar to my experience of reading The Corrections. I just finished it this weekend, with an eye to reading Freedom next, and I was shocked by how quickly it read. Makes me wonder why I postponed reading it in the first place, as the pages turned more quickly in it than in some novels a quarter of the size. Great prose!

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  13. I really wasn't a big fan of The Corrections so I haven't decided yet if I will be picking this one up.

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  14. One of the best reviews I've read for this book. I hope I get the feeling I'll feel like I could read another 500 pages of the story even after I've finished.

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  15. Excellent! So happy to read your favorable review. I do want to read this one as well.

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  16. I have this book sitting on my shelf right now! I did enjoy The Corrections, in spite of all the Oprah brouhaha.

    I stopped by here today for the Blogger Hop, but I'm delighted to have read your review of Freedom.

    Here's my hop:

    http://curlupandread.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/book-blogger-hop-sept-17-20/

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  17. Thanks for this review. After the whole Oprah thing, I may put off reading this book for a LONG time, but I'm glad it's worth reading!

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  18. I linked to your review as "the male view" on this novel! Here's mine: http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2010/09/freedom.html

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  19. @Jeanne - I will certainly concede he seems to write with a pretty definitive male slant. There's a lot of testosterone bubbling below these pages, but I do think Patty's character - and the fact that parts of the story are told as her autobiography - is something women will definitely enjoy. And thanks for linking to my review!

    @Buried - Yep, same case in Freedom - the pages practically turn themselves, and you have to pinch yourself that you're reading literary fiction, not James Patterson.

    @Reviewsbylola - I think you should!

    @Paul - Thank you for the kind words. And to be clear, I wasn't necessarily suggesting 500 pages at the END of the story - more like, 500 pages interspersed throughout the novel to expand on some of the summary "scenes." Ya know?

    @Bibliophile - Hope you enjoy it!

    @Creations - Thanks for stopping by. (Did you find me on today's hop? If so, that's strange...)

    @S.Krishna - Ha - another "boo Oprah" vote. I'd gently suggest that this is a great novel before Oprah jumped on its bandwagon. Give it a try!

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  20. Glad you like the book,Greg-I gave your review a bit of linkage in my post today regarding Freedom as the new Oprah selection(not so surprising,if you think about it)and hope that others enjoy it as much as you did.

    I don't think I'll be getting to it any time soon but anything that encourages reading in the media is a blessing,imo.

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  21. Beautiful review - I guess I'm going to have to read it. Maybe it's odd, but with a title about Freedom, I didn't really expect it to explore freedom all that much (like with you, because of that, I think the title will slightly annoy me once I've read it), but it sounds like a beautifully written beautiful story that could easily impact the majority of 20 somethings today.

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  22. God this sounds so good. Can't wait to get my BROKKEE hands on it. If only Oprah's big premier surprise was giving away a copy to everyone in America. Le sigh. Great review!

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  23. I was really skeptical about this book, but I thought the praise must be coming from somewhere, so I decided to make it my next read. I started it late Sunday night, and I'm currently about 25% in (according to my handy dandy Kindle). I am seriously impressed. I had no idea how simply readable this book would be, especially given all of the adjectives used to describe the author. "Genius" was one that made me the most hesitant about the book, because I was afraid I wouldn't understand his writing, and the whole thing would just go over my head. No so at all, and I can't wait to read more!

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  24. @ladyT - I would agree - I've been joking this is the literary version of Harry Potter in that, many people will read it because they love Franzen, and a lot will read it just so they can trash it.

    @brizmus - Thanks! Yeah, while the focus of the story is the romance of Walter and Patty and their relationship to Richard, the Berglund kids Joey and Jessica provide a nice fresh breath of youth to the story - especially Joey. A good read for all ages. ;)

    @Pradfoot - Part of me wonders if this Oprah thing isn't some sort of ploy - a fake olive branch - to get Franzen to come on her show and then tie him down and beat him on camera with The Corrections.

    @Katie - Glad you're loving it. If you go by the amazon reviews, opinions vary widely. But I haven't talked with anyone who hasn't really liked it. You're right, it is VERY readable.

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  25. Hi Greg,

    I figured I would finally retire my "lurker" cap and chime in.

    I just finished reading this about a half an hour ago and while I am typically loathe to ascribe the word masterpiece to a book before fully digesting it, this one is sitting on the fence and will likely fall into that category easily for me. Although it has been 9 years since I've read "The Corrections", I'd say that "Freedom" is even better.

    Like you, I have a minor quibble with the title but it's more of the "every time I look at the book, think about the book or tell people what I'm reading I immediately start singing George Michael in my head" variety.

    Cheers!

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  26. This book was just mailed to me from Powell's (The Indiespensable program) -- so I'll be back to comment after I've read it!

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  27. I finally posted my review! http://bit.ly/bVigAp check it out if you want. I linked back to the New Dork Review of books.

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  28. Thanks for posting this review and linking up to the party. After Oprah's announcement, I wasn't sure if it would live up to the hype. After reading your review, I am going to buy it for sure.

    Thanks-CYM

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  29. Just finished the book, and I happen to think it is so awesome. And so is your review.
    There is something about the imperfect Berglunds that is weirdly endearing!

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  30. Great review! I have to agree with just about everything you said here. I didn't love the title either, but loved just about everything else.

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  31. I am speechless. This book was amazing & awesome. one of the best books I have ever read in my life .

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