Book Review: Jonathan Franzen: Freedom

Posted on January 20, 2011

Follow a ‘disfunctional’ Midwestern family across the country.

Jonathan Franzen is a superstar, but I don’t quite get it. In his newest novel Freedom, it follows the Bergland family, primarily from the point of view of the mother, Patty. At one point it is an autobiographical novel that she wrote for her psychiatrist. Would it surprise you that Patty was raped during the narrative?

Although Patty is super attracted to rock-burnout, deck-builder and sex-with-women-haver Richard Katz, he doesn’t bang her on a road trip; so she ends up getting with and marrying his roomate and bff, Walter. Patty and Walter move to St. Paul where they have two children, Joey and Jessica. Joey is quite precocious and ends up being very good with money. He goes to UVA, marries his high school sweetheart and turns into a Republican. Jessica is largely ignored but is obedient.

At some point, Patty and Richard get together. Walter doesn’t find out until many years later, when he is in charge of a movement to save a warbler in West Virginia. The couple splits up. But Walter has his own new fling with his assistant.

The whole thing is hamfisted. Every character felt like a stereotype and despite the fact that there was no overt political motive, it was still pregnant with commentary. The dialogue and internal monologue was absurd. I often felt like I was reading soap opera fan fiction.

I can ignore bad prose if there are larger factors at play, but the plot was non-existant. There’s a lot of sex in it, most of it illicit. At one point a chapter ends with the ultimate cliff hanger. The son calls his father up and says “Dad, I’m in trouble.” Heavy handed stuff.

In its defense there are moments. I identified very strongly with Joey and the poop scene truly was one of my favorite scenes. Although, Franzen almost blew it when he talked about how everyone likes the smell of their own farts.

Many readers have found a little bit of themselves in their corresponding character. Every athletic girl who worked hard in college and had a complicated relationship with sexuality will like Patty. Every artist who sells out will see themselves in Richard. Dads who struggle with doing the right thing will find solace in Walter’s career choices.

In that sense, Franzen has given us a very real narrative. It’s a family that is normal in its unfortunate breaks. All told, the political motifs, nods to postmodernism and stodgy prose made this less than epic.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Jonathan Franzen: Freedom”

  1. Naked Dave on January 20th, 2011 4:01 pm

    Agreed! Franzen has got to be one of the most overrated authors I have ever encountered. I just don’t understand why someone would put him in the same company as Wallace, Chabon, Vollman, etc. Not only is Franzen sub-par quality-wise, but is very much different stylistically.

  2. evie on January 20th, 2011 8:36 pm

    I was looking forward to this book because I liked the Corrections so much and do enjoy Franzen’s short stories – but I agree, it was good enough to want to finish but not a great book. Also, I felt that the characters were a bit exaggerated – especially the assistant/girlfriend to Walter -

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