This month, I was lucky enough to be on a beach. I had a week there, so I decided to pound out April’s book in one, 7-day stroke. Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” was my ammo. 526 pages; ready, aim, fire.
So “Freedom” was a really big deal in 2010, when I got it. But then I was too busy pretending to read books for class to charge through a moderately paced novel for pleasure. Finishing the work, I can see how it made such an impression. We begin the story with Patty and Walter Berglund watching the last train of the life the planned pull out of the station. The Berglunds were the couple that paid more for organic, smiled a ton and actually donated to public radio. Their children, Joey and Jessica, were as bright as their futures and Patty was a diligent stay-at-home mother. Seemingly, nothing should have gone wrong. Unfortunately, Patty’s abled prowess as a mother to small children doesn’t translate to teens. Trouble with Patty creates trouble with the children, amplifies trouble with Patty, crates trouble with the neighbors, creates trouble with Walter and before the gentry of Ramsey Hill knows it, a family of its founders are moving out and running away.
The greatest compliment I can give this work is that it is complete. Now, when I say “complete” I don’t mean that no storyline takes place outside of the frame. Some novels end with every piece secured so tight the storyline can’t breathe. “Freedom” doesn’t bundle to this annoyance. It is complete because halfway through the book I could have easily ordered for the characters off a menu, picked out outfit they would hate or planned their surprise birthday party. You truly know these people. Franzen’s presentation of Patty and Walter Berglund is thorough to the atom.
I was surprised by very little in the book. Because the reader crawls so close, the suspense in Freedom comes not from surprises but rather the fulfillment of anguishing destiny. I knew Patty would say something like that and knew Joey would make that choice. The suspense came from waiting; waiting patiently for the characters to rise to their calling or their doom, and affirming how familiar the two of you are.
While the story of Patty and company is being told, the tale of their ancestry is also spun. You understand why they are the way they are, by seeing them survive their parents. You understand why their parents are the way they are, by seeing how they survived their parents and so on. The family history and flashbacks were as well written and fully complete as the rest of the work. One can see how this level of detail and familiarity compounds. It adds to the weight of the guilt, obligation or freedom that gets thrown around the novel. By seeing where everyone came from it makes each character somehow justified. (“Her mother made her that way!”) This makes the reader feel all the more empathetic when they, despite generations of failing, try to be good people.
The microscope strokes are what make “Freedom” stand out among other novels. You see the characters so extensively that you can find yourself with-in them. Unfortunately, I found the immensity of detail to also be the weakness of “Freedom.” Despite how much I enjoyed knowing everything about Frazen’s world — it could have been done In 200 less pages. I did pick-up on the intricacies that trickled down from earlier generations to affect the people both Patty and Walter became. But by the time these qualities showed their faces they were so diluted I felt knowing the origin was unnecessary. Additionally, because the accounts of the Bergalund ancestry didn’t saddle the plot I found these sections to be the most boring of the novel. If I hadn’t had a solid week to plunge into this work, these additions, lumbering out of the family tree, might have made me give-up on the book – which would have been a mistake. There was a lot of joy in reading “Freedom,” but it became a meditation instead of a rocket-powered read; not negative, just steady.
“Freedom” is a force. It’s a book that will completely wrap around you. You’ll be invested, laugh, cry and wonder why you don’t read enough. I’d be lying to claim that “Freedom” was anything but satisfying. It was satisfying but not in the fashion of a cool drink of water or after work beer. “Freedom” is a slow brewing tea, steeped with guilt but sweetened with forgiveness.
On freedom in “Freedom:”
“What does freedom mean?” I kept asking myself. “Who in this book is free, who is not?” The characters are certainly not free from themselves, their pasts or each other. They aren’t free from their jobs, mistakes or flaws. In fact, all of these things come crashing down especially hard on the victims of “Freedom.” But the work is decorated with graceful gestures of the characters occasionally freeing each other. Each main character burdens him/herself as if they have an obligation to it, like a spider spinning a web it sticks to. But each one is at some point cut free, making me feel that freedom is not a feeling or concept based on where you are, but who you are with.
- "Joe, you're on the schedule to walk the goats twice this week." #summercamp Time ago 13 Hours
- @EECraig Where are you going to Staaaay!? Time ago 21 Hours
- @haleighvic I'm just sorry I'm not there to pull you off the floor! Time ago 21 Hours
- My banner ads are realllly trying to sell me a classy evening gown, no thanks Jose! Time ago 6 Days
- Had a pretty serious, "Joe, your balloon animals are slipping." intervention today. #summercamp Time ago 7 Days
Follow @JoeWadlington on twitter.
Air your grievances/ask your questions: