Jonathan Franzen, 2011
So why would Oprah go to the well again? And why would Time put Franzen on its cover, the first author in a decade (Stephen King was the last)? And why does the phrase "great American novel" keep popping up in relation to this book?
Because it's so good, that's why.
Franzen writes both large and small. In this way the book is a throwback to the grand novels of 19th-century realism. He writes with intimate detail about his characters, about this family, the Berglunds, about their individual desires and frustrations. He also writes with an eye to the larger picture—the kind of society we live, the values we cherish. The big question here is the meaning of freedom—a concept with national iconic status. He asks us to think about how we use freedom, or how it uses (or misuses) us. Is freedom necessary to fulfill our lives?
In this book characters yearn for freedom, primarily from personal entanglements. Yet those very connections are what keep every one of them grounded. Without the ties of love and family—and the comitment those ties entail—life is vagrant and hollow. On the other hand, without freedom, we're unable to fulfill our deepest moral urgings. Walter Berglund finds that out: only when he cuts his ties to an energy company does he have the freedom to act on his convictions.
Franzen writes with convincing authority, even when writing as the voice of Patty Berglund, a suburban mother and this novel's most inspired, though by no means most likeable, creation. He subverts his own voice in his characters, creating intricate, fallible creatures, and then weaves them together into a dense tapestry of plot.
Speaking of plot, I realize I've told you nothing about what happens. But it doesn't matter. The book is about a family: mother, father, daughter, son, who live outside St. Paul, Minnesota. Patty is a stay-at-home mom, Walter a lawyer for 3-M with larger ambitions. The kids grow up and struggle to create their own lives. In between there's an environmental scandal involving the bird on the novel's dustjacket.
After finishing Freedom, its spell lingered for days. I had trouble starting other books, which seemed pallid in comparison. At over 600 pages, Freedom is a big undertaking for a book club, but you won't be disappointed, I promise. And, oh, how I'd love to be a fly on the wall when you get around to Patty Berglund!
See our Reading Guide for Freedom.
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