It has been a very unproductive couple of weeks in terms of my reading with life getting a bit in the way, unfortunately.
Another problem has been that I got stuck halfway though Freedom and went through about a 100 pages at a snail’s pace, after I had raced through the first half. Fortunately, this was a blip and the book got back on track.
Of course, there has been so much hype about Franzen, with the Guardian
and many other critics calling this their “novel of the century”. There was also the fiasco of 80,000 copies of the book having to be pulped after discovering the publisher had printed the wrong draft (wouldn’t like to have been the one responsible for that). Franzen has become a bit of a sacred cow and cannot be criticised, with Freedom even being compared to War and Peace which Patty incidentally starts reading in the novel. It therefore seemed impossible that I would not like the book, especially after enjoying The Corrections.
The story revolves around the lives of the Berglund family. Walter a staunch liberal who paradoxically wants to save the environment and a breed of warblers despite working for a coal mining company that is destroying their habitat is married to Patty. The couple have been married for a number of years and are seemingly a perfect couple and extremely annoying to their neighbours. However, as the book unfolds it is clear that their marriage is going through some trouble. Patty is obviously depressed and Walter is a bit of a doormat. To make things worse their son Joey who Patty has smothered with too much affection is having a secret affair with Connie next door and he is also showing worrying signs of becoming a Republican. Walter’s best friend Richard Katz, a womanising rock singer, also adds to the problems of the Berglunds.
The story is told from multiple perspectives including an unpublished memoir Patty has written, in the third person, at the suggestion of her therapist. We learn about Patty’s privileged but unhappy childhood and her dilemma of being in a relationship with the law student Walter but also fancying Richard , whose selfishness contrasts with Walter’s self-sacrifice. The story is then told from various third person perspectives – Richard’s, Joey’s and Walter’s – set shortly after 9/11 (I got stuck in one of Walter’s narratives, maybe because he was too good and therefore a little boring).
There are some very funny moments in this book, I don’t imagine many books have the male hunk looking like Gaddafi as a footnote points out;
“Patty didnt see a picture of Gaddafi until some years after college and even then , though struck immediately by his resemblance to Richard Katz she didn’t make anything special of the fact that Libya seemed to her to have the world’s cutest head of state”.
There is also a very funny scene with Katz being interviewed describing truly revolutionary songs such as the Marseilles and a horrible one with one of the characters trying to find his wedding ring that he has swallowed, once it has come out the other end.
The theme of freedom unsurprisingly runs through this book. There is the idea that the characters all have their own freedom to make their choices but this has not necessarily made them happy. It also focuses on freedoms in America in the light of 9/11 and the argument of the reactionary characters that freedom is “a pain in the ass” and that free people should be encouraged to change their points of view by “any means necessary.” As the novel unfolds the characters learn more about themselves and the novel ends with a view of Walter and Patty’s marriage through the eyes of yet another set of post-DC neighbours, that contrasts with the first introduction to the Berglunds. The poignant end of the book moved me to tears and I found that by the end I had come to care about these characters.
It was an enjoyable book in the main but I feel that the reason that I stopped reading it for a while was that it was just a little too long. It’s a good read but unlike the Corrections I couldn’t see myself reading it again in the future.