Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

4 comments

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen book cover
One of the most hyped releases of the decade Freedom (2010) wowed some critics and was lambasted by others. In a similar vein to The Corrections, the novel is an honest depiction of family life in contemporary America. The inter-generational plot centres on the marriage of the Berglunds; the meek-willed, environmentalist Walter and the plain, troubled housewife Patty. The plot looks back to their upbringing and forward through the lives of their own children, not to mention encompassing the life of aging rocker Richard Katz, a college friend of the Berglunds and a fractious character within the marriage and the novel.

Freedom is a self-consciously big and unapologetically long novel, not only looking at the frictions of modern married life but also toying with a wide spectrum of political issues. Liberalism leaps from every page and the characters freedom, or lack thereof, is discussed often and at length. One can feel bludgeoned by the social conscience espoused by the characters, patronised by both the message and the clumsy way it is delivered. Despite good intentions it feels as though, in an attempt to provide an all-encompassing snapshot of early 21st century conscience, Franzen has over-burdened the novel.

Spanning around thirty years, the plot is a mash of narrative perspectives, freely floating between storylines and time periods. Although the novel is structurally complex Franzen holds the various strands together well, however, there are bigger problems. Too much of the dialogue is clunky and feels as though it has been shoe-horned into a characters' mouths to illustrate a point or theme rather than being driven by the character themselves. Equally, the large section of the novel narrated by Patty is indistinguishable in tone from the sections narrated by Franzen as the author. Beyond dialogic gripes there are several plotting contrivances, and rather a lot of plot that one could do without. Taken as a whole the novel reads more as a sophisticated soap opera than the literary tour de force it is so plainly intended to be.

Almost without exception the characters are self-absorbed and unpleasant - representative of a society that puts the individual before the collective. On this level Freedom works as a social critique and much of the liberal political sentiment captures the essence of the day, but for all that its flaws mean it is unlikely to be an enduring testimony to our times.

Although Freedom is a big book it was an easy read, and I enjoyed it as a snapshot of 21st century life and marriage for a particular generation. On first reading I would tend to say some of the praise has gone too far, but nevertheless this is a perfectly good read.


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Reviews of Freedom on Amazon (UK)

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4 comments:

Jenners said...

Great review! I think you hit the mark ... it isn't a "genius" book like it was touted to be but I think the harsh criticism it has gotten isn't deserved either. So many bloggers seem to really really disliked it ... and I was on the fence about it for much of the book before coming round to liking it. I think you wrote a great review of a book that was a challenge to read. Well done.

bibliofreak said...

I think the vast amount of press coverage and praise set the book up to be shot down, and a lot of people probably opened it with the attitude, "go on then, impress me". Having said that, I've been more undecided on Freedom than I am with most books. When I read other people's reviews I can see the points from both camps, but ultimately there is a narrowness, a lack of depth and lack of incisiveness that makes me feel Freedom is good rather than great.

Thanks for the comment, I look forward to reading more on your blog or in comments.

Graham said...

There was a massive amount of press coverage and hype about Freedom, and I felt that, on the whole, Franzen lived up to it. I think that Freedom may well end up as something of an early 21st century American classic.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

There was a lot Graham, and I think that set a lot of people against it. It's always difficult to live up to that much hype. Having let the book settle a while, I think you're right, it will probably be one of the books that is used to define America in the early 21st century, although it's longevity will be interesting.