Friday, March 4, 2011


by Jonathan Franzen
New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010
562 p.    Fiction

What can I say about the book, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, that hasn’t already been said? I have been worrying about this all week as I was engrossed in this fascinating book. There are more reviews of Freedom than you can possibly imagine. BookMarks magazine counted more reviews for the book than any book in the year 2010—twice as many as the next most reviewed book. It has been called “The book of the Century” and Time magazine put Jonathan Franzen on its cover. What can I say?

First of all, I might say, that it is a very large book, and if there was ever a time to buy a Kindle, this would be it! Some reviewers felt the book was too long; that was not one of my complaints. I enjoyed the read, although I do have to say that I didn’t particularly like the characters. The main characters are the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, and their children Jessica and Joey. They are “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive every-body so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.” You may have heard the phrase, “Minnesota nice.” Well, the Berglund’s are Minnesota nice, and ostensibly the book is about what happens when fate befalls them, as fate is wont to do.

It is also about the history of the years following 9/11 through the eyes of one family. It is family as microcosm or microhistory, as one reviewer points out. Of course, the range of characters is larger than these four people, and we are pulled through the years that we have all just experienced through the eyes of the Berglunds and the people around them. As we read about their lives, we come to a sense of how we fared during those years, and about how our lives changed.

When thinking about my future and the future of my family in my years as a happy young wife, I somehow knew that the passionate life I was leading would at some point end—the other shoe would drop, as it were. Well of course, at that point, I had no way of knowing that I would lose my husband to cancer, that I would raise my children on my own, and that I would find a measure of happiness again. The story of the Berglunds evolves in much the same way—initial happiness followed by uncontrolled events, despair, tragedy, and the return to happiness.

Jonathan Franzen says that he has to tell stories through the context of family. In an interview on PBS’ news hour, he says: “Family is how I make sense of the world. I had a very powerful experience of it, these -- these really giant figures in my life. And I was this little kid. And I had two much older brothers and these powerful and often clashing parents. And every novel I have written -- it's been four novels -- I have tried to draw on the energy of those intense family relations to power a book.”

The relationships in Freedom are intense and all-permeating, just as the family relationships are for most of us. When Franzen juxtaposes historical context, evil, fear, greed, passion, and thwarted ambition into the mix of family relationships, the context of his book becomes clear. The book is about freedom and power, hypocrisy and its attendant rhetoric. The comprehensive reviewer in The New York Review of Books suggests: “Freedom operates as a kind of morality play in which all the major players are drawn toward actions they should not perform and objects they either cannot or should not possess.”

There are several subplots swirling around the family drama, including species extinction, mountaintop removal used in West Virginia coal mining, overpopulation, and private-sector subcontracts for the Iraq war. These are upper-middle class educated people, so their concerns, their prejudices, and their politics are liberal. The blogger on the Huffington Post feels that these are not the people through whom the story of the decade should be told--that their need for freedom is rarified and scarcely touched by the events of the decade. However, as Walter noted, ‘The world doesn’t reward ideas or emotions, it rewards integrity and coolness.” As the characters in Freedom struggle with ideas, emotions, integrity and coolness, we are privileged to see Franzen’s take on a world adrift and the people who are adrift in it.

My favorite review is the review in The New York Review of Books:

The review in the New York Times:

An interview on PBS:

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