Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is near perfection
By Anna Frey
In Jonathan Franzen’s newest novel, Freedom, we are drawn into an America so familiar, so realistic, that we almost believe it’s true. Almost.
The novel begins and ends focused on the Berglund family and their individual and collective troubles. These are the most engaging parts of the story as we get not only a glimpse but a full-on window into the lives of these characters.
The middle of the book concentrates on the political careers and dramas of Walter and Joey, which can be tedious at times, but retain enough humanity to keep one reading.
The characters, being so deeply flawed themselves, are flawless. Franzen is unafraid to suggest that these people are to be undesirable, should we meet them in real life. He has managed to create a cast of people that have just enough personality and quirks to keep us interested without being overwhelming or unbelievable.
We are witness to Patty Berglund, the central character of the novel, as she grows from a basketball-obsessed teenager, to a dedicated mother of two, and, finally, to a woman who eventually realises that “mistakes were made.”
Patty meets her future husband, Walter, in college, although his rock-star roommate, Richard Katz, grabs her attention first and manages to hold it for the rest of her life. After a struggle through which the reader is nearly as torn as Patty herself, she finally chooses Walter, the good man who loves her.
Patty’s life, one realises, isn’t unique in its troubles. Having grown up with parents who cared more about her siblings than herself, Patty dives into her own children’s lives with reckless abandon, getting to know their friends and neighbours well enough to deliver baked goods on birthdays and holidays.
Despite her good intentions, Patty’s children grow up and away from her. Jessica, the eldest, moves away to college and ignores her mother’s vague efforts at reconciliation, while Joey, Patty’s beloved youngest child, breaks her heart by moving out of their house and into their neighbour’s with Connie, the literal “girl next door,” while still in high school.
Jessica eventually becomes Patty’s ally during her separation with Walter, acting as the middleman between her parents. Joey’s relationship with Connie is twisted and uncomfortable. With her, he discovers his most vulgar sexual fantasies, as well as the lengths to which he will go to keep her with him – or the weakness that renders him unable to leave her.
Franzen’s creations don’t leap off the page and into real life, instead, they quietly step out, give you a polite nod or some baked goods, and continue with their lives. Their actions and reactions are completely plausible and relatable – Franzen again proves himself to be a true connoisseur of human nature.
Freedom tackles our most human cravings in our culture: sex with and without love; love itself, both romantic, familial, and in friendship; money, and power.
This is not an idyllic, anything-goes America. Franzen deals with overpopulation, ecological crises, moral issues concerning the war in Iraq, as well as tackling subjects that hit much closer to home: love gained and lost, absent children and parents, mental illness, bad choices, and the constant struggle to be a “good man.”
Though some aspects of the story seem over-blown or far-fetched, Franzen never loses track of the streak of pure humanity he has managed to weave in this America of his. For people who would know about people, this is an essential read.