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Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

freedom jonathan franzenIn my recent post great books for misanthropes, I mentioned both of Jonathan Franzen’s most popular novels – The Corrections and now, Freedom. I read the not-small book Freedom in about 50 hours, which is saying something since:

1) I made time to read that I really didn’t have

2) The story didn’t sound interesting to me, but I knew how well Franzen could write. And the story’s really not the point, as I’ll get to.

3) The hooplah that Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner were stirring up about how male authors get the majority of the attention was getting really tiresome to me (not saying it’s true or untrue, only that I was sick of hearing about it)

4) Every since Franzen was disinvited from the Oprah book club after The Corrections was chosen as one of her selections, I just thought the author seemed like a cranky narcissist. I was very happy to be, as I believe, wrong about this. After I read the book of essays, How To Be Alone, I viewed Jonathan Franzen in a new light.

5) Oprah also picked Freedom for a book club selection, and I’m instantly annoyed every time she does this for a book that I wanted to read without having to hear any hype about it first.

Anyways, I now have to count myself among the, if all the positive reviews out there are legit, many many readers who absolutely loved the novel Freedom.

Negative review

But if you are looking for a negative critique, B.R. Myers wrote a negative review of Freedom called Smaller Than Life for The Atlantic. I even agree with some of the points made, but it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

Plot summary of Freedom

As with The Corrections, the plot of Freedom really isn’t the point of the book. Not for me anyways. Corrections was ostensibly about an aging mother who wanted to get her adult children together for one last family Christmas. Of course, it was about more than that, or it could have been a short story.

The summary of Freedom, in terms of dust-jacket sized description, is that there is a married couple who get caught up in a love triangle over a couple of decades. They fall in and out of love. Sounds like a lot of books, doesn’t it? The difference here is the way Franzen writes–some call his style pretentious and preening, but not me–and also the many themes in the story.

Characters as ideas

I’m in the middle of The Brothers Karamazov right now and am enjoying it. Each of the brothers is essentially a stand-in for an idea. Religion, logic, etc. That is how the characters in Freedom felt to me. Capitalism, rock and roll, environmentalism, conservatism and liberalism, and lust are a few of the character-demonstrated themes that I can think of off the top of my head.

I think it is fun to ponder these ideas, and while Freedom is a book about these characters and the things they and their children do to each other, it is written in such a way that it is tough to read their story without also contemplating the ideas of the book. If you truly read the book and don’t skim, you will have to ask yourself what you think about overpopulation, or mountaintop mining, or the extinction of species. Or Freedom and the slipperiness of the word.

When I was done with the book, I felt like I had truly gotten to know the characters inside of it. I wasn’t exactly happy I had met them, which is how I felt at the end of The Corrections as well. But I believe that is what Franzen does well–I know that there are times that I do things that are low and petty, for reasons that I can’t always explain. I believe most people have moments and stretches like this whether they can admit it or are even aware of it.

In Franzen’s books, I see a reflection of the occasional me that I don’t like. But I also get to laugh, learn, read some incredible writing, and although they’re not peppy self-help volumes, I did feel hopeful when I finished The Corrections and Freedom.

I hope he doesn’t take another ten years to write the next one.

And now that you’ve had the lengthy version of the review, here’s the short one:

Freedom is awesome. Read it.


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