Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Freedom: A Novel
by Jonathan Franzen, Sept 2010, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
This is an epic story told over a thirty year time period. It has three main characters, Walter and Patty Berglund, and Walter’s best friend Richard Katz. Others pop in and out of the story but the action centers on these three. We first come to know them in their college years in Minnesota. Walter is a straight arrow character, very rigid but appealing if not exciting. Richard is the dark side – a nihilistic musician attractive to women for all of the wrong reasons. Patty is an athlete on a basketball scholarship to Minnesota. She is an interesting character with numerous contradictions. Patty is attracted to Richard but ends up making the safer choice of Walter. We are treated to an in depth look at their early married years as gentrifying yuppies in an up and coming St. Paul neighborhood. We also get an examination of the families of Walter and Patty. Walter and Patty have a supportive even loving married life but Patty continues to be attracted to Richard. In a plot turn that I found somewhat hard to believe the liberal environmentally conscious Berglunds allow their 15 year old son Joey to move in with the red neck next store neighbors and carry on an openly sexual relationship with the neighbors’ daughter.
During a midlife crisis, Patty succumbs to temptation and sleeps with Richard during a two day stay at the Berglund’s’ remote lake cottage. This destroys the marriage for Patty but Walter is unaware of the breach of trust. Walter accepts a position as executive director of an environmental trust agency in D.C. and he and Patty move east. The setup for them is again fairly strange. They live in a house owned by the trust and share living quarters with Walter’s assistant, an attractive young Indian-American. Patty continues in a deep depression. Events accelerate at this point. Richard reappears and betrays to Walter Patty’s indiscretion, the Berglund son Joey becomes in involved in international arms dealing (again to me a widely improbable event) and the Berglund marriage falls apart. Walter takes up with his assistant and essentially has a breakdown that causes him to leave his job and indulge a life style more reminiscent of the 70s than the new millennium. The assistant, Lalitha, is killed in a car accident and Walter retreats to a hermit like existence at the lake cottage in Minnesota. Patty tries staying with Richard but pines for her life with Walter. The ending that brings Patty and Walter reconciled and back together is very satisfying.
Let me apologize for a plot summary that reads like a soap opera, but condensing 570 pages into a couple of paragraphs with my poor skills inevitably reduces the story in a cartoonish way. This was an entertaining and very readable book. It is certainly a modern novel for the new millennium about people who I found interesting though I did have trouble relating to them. I am always complaining that characters have no depth in a lot of what I read, Not true here, we are inside their heads for sure! The story is entertaining in and of itself, without looking for any other levels of meaning. Franzen is a talented writer, some of his prose rings so true and is so amusingly descriptive that you just need to stop and savor it. There are lots of references to Tolstoy throughout the book and while this family is certainly unhappy in its own unique way, there are no great characters here in my opinion. Maybe that in itself says something about the modern world but while I enjoyed this story and loved the prose I felt cheated in the end that these people were not really worth my time.
I read an advanced review copy provided by the publisher.