Last year it seemed like all of the bookish parts of the Internet were going crazy over Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. As I tend to be rather late to jump on bandwagons, I instead just got around to reading his earlier ‘masterpiece’ novel, The Corrections. I loved it, it was one of the best books I read all year, and so I duly received Freedom as a Christmas gift and sat down to start reading it as my first book of this year.
I finished it a few days ago and I’ve been trying to construct my little review of it since then, with a bit of difficulty. I have trouble writing these things most of the time, but there is something about this book that I’ve found particularly difficult to sum up.
Now, I’ll start by saying that this review will contain some inevitable comparisons to The Corrections. On one hand, I feel I should judge the book on its own merits, but I recognise also that it’s rather difficult not to also put it in context, especially when it is a long-awaited follow up to a previous well-regarded novel. The reality is, while it may not be fair, every book or film or album I experience is in some way judged relative to other books/films/records, because these other things have influenced me and therefore the way in which I’ve approached the current book or whatever in question. That’s probably pretty obvious, but I kind of feel the need to defend the fact that I’m ultimately going to be a bit hard on this book, and only because I’m judging it against something else.
But before I dive into that, I’ll just provide a short synopsis. The book is the story of the Berglund family, a middle-class midwestern American family consisting of father Walter, an environmentally-conscious lawyer, mother Patty, a former athlete with a competitive personality, and their children Jessica and Joey, the latter of whom has a troubled relationship with his parents and with a neighbourhood girl. Also thrown into the mix are Walter’s old friend, rock musician Richard Katz, and his pretty young assistant Lalitha. The book follows the family over the course of several years, from several different viewpoints. Through this Franzen explores the big theme of the book, which is obviously freedom, in many different senses of the word.
The first thing to address is Franzen’s writing style, which is excellent. I love the way that the main protagonists all get their own sections, and that the overall story is told through all of these different viewpoints. So you’ll have one section following one character, then the next section follows another and you only learn about what the first character has been up to through their interaction with the second. It’s a technique that I generally like when it’s done well, and here it is excellently executed.
So, much like The Corrections, one of the key things to praise about the book is the fact that, unarguably, it is a very well written book. But, again like The Corrections, I found myself at times wondering why exactly I liked it. This is largely due to the characters. When I reviewed that earlier book I noted that I found the characters very frustrating and unlikable, albeit well developed and in a believable way. In Freedom, however, every single character was utterly loathsome and the intense hatred that I developed for some of them may have compromised my enjoyment of the book.
The main issue was that I just don’t know why I should care about these kinds of people and their lives. On one hand, the lives of these middle-class midwestern Americans would seem to have little relevance to me; I really don’t know any families or people who are like this, and the whole thing is completely removed from my own experience and my life. But on the other hand, as Franzen touches on in the book, these people are central to so many issues, from the environment to politics to the economy to war, and so it is important and relevant to understand their influence in America, as America has its influence over the rest of the world.
But to be honest, that may be over-thinking it a bit. Mainly, the reason I liked the book despite hating the characters is because it so well written and compelling to read. As much as didn’t like them, I was still interested in what happened to them. It is also a book that is entertaining as much as it is thought-provoking, and although I found it overall to be a pretty depressing story, there were still some moments of great humour too.
So to return to the inevitable comparison and to sum up: The Corrections is a great book, and I loved it; Freedom is a great book, but I did not. But it is still hugely impressive, and I think the hype that surrounds it is entirely deserved.