Book Review: ‘Freedom’ is funny, familiar and . . . 562 pages

by Jonathan Franzen
reviewed by
Kathleen Grove

This is the latest in an irregularly appearing series of reviews of books that are likely to appeal to or particularly relate to the Rappahannock reader.

I suspect quite a few people received a copy of “Freedom” for Christmas. By Jonathan Franzen, who won the National Book Award for “The Corrections” in 2001, “Freedom” is shortlisted for the same award. And, Oprah Winfrey made its popularity certain by selecting it for her 2010 book club.

I received my copy for my birthday in late August, and its 562 pages sat on my pile of bedside books for several months. As winter arrived, I reached for its cheerful cover: a deep woods forest and lake with a cerulean warbler in the foreground. I had 200 non-cheerful pages behind me before I understood the tiny songbird’s significance. (I did come across one woman’s report that she read the first 150 pages and the last 150 pages for her book club, skipping the middle 150 pages. While I don’t recommend this, I found it interesting!)

“Freedom” traces the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund, from their college romance in the ’70s to the present. Franzen uses the narrative to describe and expose many social issues with plot development detailed with authenticity. When Patty is date-raped in high school, her father takes her for a drive to discuss her allegation, dismaying her by turning off “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” just as it started. (After her father advises her, “Life’s not always fair, Pattycakes,” they decide not to go to the police.)

Patty attends college on a basketball scholarship, enabling a discussion of women’s sports and Title IX. Walter belongs to Zero Population Growth and lectures Patty’s wealthy family at their first dinner together about the report by the Club of Rome.

Characters in the novel, while fully developed, seem to carry social trends. Walter’s best friend, Richard, attends college and then drops out to pursue a music career, playing in tiny venues where in-the-know fans applaud him. He eventually achieves popularity, travels the world, gets nominated for a Grammy, and then sinks back into obscurity, resuming his carpentry until he is needed to promote an environmental conference.

The Berglunds have two children, one of whom, Joey, seems to reject their middle-class, liberal philosophy by moving in with his girlfriend and her mother and live-in boyfriend, Blake. Blake drives a Ford F250 truck and builds an addition on his girlfriend’s house for his “Playstation, Foosball, refrigerated beer keg, a large-screen TV, an air-hockey table, a stained glass Vikings chandelier, and mechanized recliners.”

Joey maintains his primarily physical relationship with this girlfriend even as he goes to college, woos the sister of his wealthy roommate, and becomes involved in buying and selling antiquated truck parts to contractors in Iraq.

Walter and Patty eventually move to Washington, D.C. where they live in a Georgetown townhouse, while Walter seeks to create a bird sanctuary (aha: the cerulean warbler appears) by negotiating environmentally destructive coal mining deals in West Virginia. These events represent a small proportion of this sweeping story. Franzen narrates each subplot with impressive attention to detail (sometimes uplifting, sometimes sordid) and authentic dialogue.

The narration itself carries interpretation as the novel alternates among accounts written by various characters. After an opening chapter titled “Good Neighbors,” the next section is called, “Mistakes Were Made, Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion).” Have I mentioned that “Freedom” is funny? Even as I immersed myself in the world of the Berglunds and their family and friends, I could laugh at their absurdities.

More than 500 pages of action and dialogue and characterization defy summary. Do you have vivid memories of the ’70s, a time when zero population growth was a socio-political movement? Do you know someone whose career evolved into making compromises or whose child appeared to deliberately embrace a lifestyle that rejected his family’s values? Do you know someone whose career skyrocketed and crashed or pursued an illicit romance? Or know someone who became a crotchety recluse after a tragedy? This novel will resonate with most readers in part because it holds a mirror to so many elements of today’s society.

“Freedom” also invites the reader to consider where our society is and from where it has come and where it might go. It asks why segments of our society oppose one another with anger rather than seek to work together toward common goals. What is freedom, and can we share it with another? Franzen begins his book with a quote from “A Winter’s Tale” (whose interpretation I will leave to book clubs); Franzen’s “Freedom” provides a good tale to read during the long Rappahannock winter.

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, 2010; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York.