Jonathan Franzen is one of today’s most undeniably talented and intelligent writers and, currently, he is pretty much on top of the world. His most recent novel, Freedom, is being declared the new definitive American novel, a masterpiece, a story that defines a generation, etc. etc. I was first introduced to him when a friend suggested I read The Corrections, his second full length novel. She prefaced her suggestion by assuring me that it would not be an easy read, however it would prove to be a very worthwhile one. I came upon a series of essays by the author, however, before I turned to any of his works of fiction. The essays compiled in Franzen’s collection entitled How to Be Alone were beautifully written, intelligently constructed, thought-provoking, and completely relatable. When I made it to The Corrections, I was enraptured by Franzen’s story-telling ability, the way in which he created a riveting family saga that covers all the humor, nostalgia, sentimentality, conflict, and monotony of family life. I’ll refrain from raving about these works for now but let it be known, I was eager to read Freedom, despite all the hype, the controversy with Oprah, and the predictions of greatness, simply because of my genuine love for Franzen’s work.
Like The Corrections, Freedom is a book about the modern American family, a snapshot of one dysfunctional and disparate family struggling to make sense of the world today and their place in it. When I considered why Franzen selected the title Freedom, I realized how this novel explores the ways in which family life can encourage and inhibit our freedom, and how central this struggle is to daily family life. Freedom is certainly at the center of it all, both our freedoms to and our freedoms from, freedoms both real and imagined, both implicated and explicit. Franzen created a novel that surveys one of the most prized and predominant American values in the context of modern family life.
In the Berglund family depicted in Freedom, Walter is the do-gooder father, a hopelessly devoted husband and environmental advocate working for the Nature Conservancy. We’re almost misled to believe that he is most like us – the sane one, the most relatable and reliable character. In time, however, we learn that no character is so easily categorized or trusted. Sure, Walter presumes the picture of normality, but ultimately reveals moments of radical extremism that wreck havoc on himself and his family.
Then there’s Walter’s wife Patty. A college athlete, she never knew much outside of basketball and an ambition to win. Her relationships have all been defined by what she gets out of them – her closest friend from college loved Patty to a confidence boosting degree, Patty’s favorite thing about Walter is his unconditional love for her, the security he provides. Though she may seem the picture of the perfect stay-at-home mom, blessed with an adoring husband and perfect children, Franzen once again proves that things are never as simple as they seem when Patty is challenged by the friend who drew her to Walter in the first place.
And then there is the Berglund’s daughter Jessica, a type-A personality who is distanced from her mother on account of Patty’s overwhelming love and devotion to Joey, her youngest offspring. We follow the course of the children’s lives, jumping back and forth in time to see where Jessica and Joey go in relation to where their parents have been. The children experiment with an array of moral and political leanings and their own changing attitudes toward the Berglunds, all while confronting the disparity between their expectations and reality of adult life.
Freedom is not just about the family in modern America – it truly is about freedom and the ways in which it manifests itself in 21st century America. This is a novel about our responsibility to the world and what we have been told the world owes to us. Franzen confronts the issues of how to deal with the freedom, or lack thereof, that modern culture affords each and every American citizen. The Berglunds live in a world where freedom comes at the price of figuring out what exactly to do with it. A world where people are free to be like everyone else, to join the masses and never think about a thing for themselves, to blindly follow the herd and do as they’re told. But also a world where true freedom is never quite free, where every decision carries the weight of moral and political implications, where nothing is so isolated and unfettered as to be completely free.
In Franzen’s latest, he challenges the notion of freedom upon which so many people believe their family’s life is based. The husband who is enslaved to his wife, the wife burdened by unhealthy relationships, the daughter who seeks space from the dysfunction of her family, and the son who yearns for freedom from his father’s ideals. In this enveloping novel, Franzen plays with the very idea of freedom through the example of the Berglund family and, hopefully, suggests to his many readers a more well-intentioned way of living a life more free.