Though I know I am obviously late to the game on this one, hopefully the window of relevancy for talking about this book hasn’t closed completely. I wanted to read it when it first came out but somehow never got around to it, which happens with more books than I’d like to admit. But, looking for some beach reading, I picked up this one and another, This Is Where I Leave You, which I might give my thoughts on when I finish as well.
I want to start by saying that I love this kind of book. Freedom is the kind of engaging, wrenching, funny, poignant analysis of a family that I’ve always enjoyed reading — even if the individual story wasn’t my favorite. I suppose I’m a sucker for drama, but I’m willing to live with that title. Freedom is a fairly epic one in size and scope for this genre, and though I can’t say all of it’s 700-ish pages were as strong or necessary as one another, I never felt that exhausted, “Come on, end already” feeling I’ve gotten before with books of similar size and material. Its following of the Berglund family from St Paul, Minnesota felt very rich and, though it was lengthy, seemed very full and rounded, never trying to be a certain length to be a certain kind of novel. I felt rewarded at the end of it, if a bit drained, and am very glad that I read it.
It should also be said that I haven’t read The Corrections and, as everyone tells me that it is by far Franzen’s superior work, I definitely will. Perhaps my understanding of his writing is stunted by my not having read anything else by him, but I will correct that soon in any case.
While reading Freedom, I found myself going through cycles of really liking and really disliking the book, and I realized upon finishing it that it was because the book itself goes in cycles: action and explanation, emotion and fact, character and politics. Franzen clearly had several social and political ideas he wanted to attack in this book, and I almost wish he had dedicated a separate book entirely to such an endeavor. While I by no means insist that a book about family and relationships be relegated strictly to feelings and drama, I feel that the story lines here about conservation, population control, the war in Iraq, and Republican vs Democrat seemed to compete with the characters for time and attention. The story would be chugging along, the reader getting tangled up in the character’s mind, and all of a sudden we put on the brakes for a 40-page discussion about population growth. And the sections about politics seemed to be oddly detached from the rest of the action, as though we were all sitting down for a lecture in the middle of a very fun game.
I also got the impression that the politics in the book were undoubtedly Franzen’s to the letter, as one character’s constant speechifying about various causes and ethical issues seemed far too pedantic and given far too much spotlight to not have some lasting message to convey to the reader. I often felt during these passages as though Franzen himself was sitting me down in a chair and giving me a talking-to about who to vote for in the upcoming election. It wasn’t wholly off-putting, but it did seem to take up too big a chunk of the overall story.
And the story itself was very much about people. The family we follow is undeniably very engaging, with histories and flaws and triumphs that are quite satisfying to experience with them. I do feel, though, that even the character’s lives suffer somewhat at the hands of this need to inject politics so completely into the story. The son character, Joey, for example, has a plot line so highly tied up with government contracting in the reconstruction of Iraq (at the tender age of 19) that you sometimes feel as though you’re watching a personal stories segment on MSNBC circa 2006. And while it’s clear that the father, Walter, has a political life that is highly tied in with his personal one, the constant hitting of his talking points feels, at times, very forced. In fact, one of the most unsettling things I found about the book was how unbelievable some of the plot turns were, often in the interest of pushing the political story. Joey’s career seemed shoehorned into an agenda on the author’s part, and its ridiculousness ultimately took away from any ideological point that was being made.
I should also state that his love interest, Connie, seemed borderline offensive to me as a character, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl with far too much Manic in the equation, who was nonetheless a feather floating on the whims of this Complicated Boy that she loved and submitted to to a point which seemed absurd.
I did, however, find myself really involved in the characters. Even in moments that seemed really stretched to accommodate an “action-heavy” plot, I really enjoyed reading about these people. I feel I know a Walter in my own life, and I certainly know a Richard. I found myself liking characters I thought I would hate, and still seething with anger at one character (I know she isn’t real, but the fact that she was so well-rendered in a book is enough to make me upset with the world in general). Though this book is far from perfect, the characters in it are extremely fascinating, and their motivations/rewards often unclear — which is the way it is in real life. At no point did I feel that a plot line was just sailing along and everything falling into its good-vs-evil mold, there was always something that could be argued either way. I felt that the characters had very rich lives going on outside of this book, lives that we only scratched the surface of, as opposed to being glorified plot devices. There were a few moments of groan-inducing “well-isn’t-that-convenient” story turns, but not enough to detract from the overall impact of the characters.
The genre of analyzing the complexities and inner turmoils of a middle-class suburban family who appears perfect on the outside is clearly not a new one, but I never felt as though the judgment being made by Franzen was one of “Oh, look at these poor little rich white people and their problems,” à la American Beauty. There were a few problems that seemed largely self-imposed, problems that only people with too much money or time on their hands have, but most problems seemed genuine and not easily waved away with a dismissal of their privilege. When I first started, I anticipated another scathing critique on American suburban life, but I found that — while that was certainly addressed — the struggles and relationships amongst the characters were dealt with in a compassionate way, and not with a sneer.
I found this book to be complex, and odd, and sometimes a bit forced — but overall, very worth a read. It’s a book that makes me want to talk about the characters, and hear what other people think of it, and look forward to a possible adaptation. Franzen is far from being a favorite author, but he’s one I’ll definitely be thinking about for a while.
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