I loved ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen. Like its predecessor, ‘The Corrections’, it is essentially a social-realist family saga about a depressive, entropic midwestern family, the Berglunds, being swallowed and digested by the insatiable appetite of modernity. A comic – tragic tale that is as engrossing as any page turning thriller.
It is 10 years since ‘The Corrections’ caused a literary sensation – and Franzen became a household name – and in the intervening years I had forgotten how skilled he is at being able to create such comprehensively realised psychologies for each of his characters. It is what makes reading him so addictive.
At the heart of the novel are Patty and Walter Berglund, a baby-boomer couple from the Midwest. Financially comfortable, secure in their left-leaning political beliefs, and parents of an outwardly super son and daughter, the Berglunds are nonetheless afflicted by dissatisfaction and disappointment.
Patty, a potential professional sportswoman but thwarted by a college injury, is now an overly competitive parent to the detriment of her family relationships. Her thoughts frequently return to her choice of life partner; should she have married Walter or run off with his college room – mate, Richard Katz, a musician and truth seeker with a bullshit detector, instead?
Meanwhile, devoted conservationist Walter finds that, in his attempts to preserve an obscure species of warbler bird, he is forced to compromise and collaborate with the destructive energy companies he most despises. His partner in this endeavour is his beautiful young assistant, Lalitha, a Bengali – American, whose admiration for her boss knows no bounds and crosses all boundaries.
Both Berglunds try in vain to outrun their looming depression, while the “freedom” of the title, that abstract condition enjoyed by the developed-world middle-classes, leaves them struggling to decide “how to live”.
The book is ultimately the story of a marriage. The backdrop is an America we are all now familiar with; the rise of the republican and neo – con agenda, the ongoing cultural wars and the fight for the environment. But, what makes this novel better than most is how Franzen is able to forensically cut into the characters mental lives and lay everything out for us in a comic, tragic way. It is not a happy tale but does have some resolution. It reminds us that relationships do come apart, that marriage is difficult, people are different, life doesn’t always play out the way you want it to, we all make bad choices without realising their consequences and that ‘freedom’ isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Funny, sad, heart rending, poignant and very well written. Get a loan of it off someone or just go out and buy it. And if you haven’t read ‘The Corrections’ do that too
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