Freedom is the latest novel by Jonathan Franzen. It is the story of Patty, a talented college basketball player and Walter, the studious, responsible boy who she will one day marry. The novel maps their journey from college into their complicated and tempestuous marriage. Their relationship is tainted from the start as Patty only dates Walter after a failed attempt at a connection with Richard, Walter’s best friend.
Their relationship weathers ups and downs as Patty flirts with the idea of a renewed relationship with Richard and Walter finds a cause that he devotes more time and affection to than his wife. Walter realizes that, “He and his wife loved each other and brought each other daily pain…He and Patty couldn’t live together and couldn’t imagine living apart. Each time he thought they’d reached the unbearable breaking point, it turned out that there was still further they could go without breaking.”
Mr. Franzen writes with great insight into the ways in which we hurt the people we love. He is a meticulous author who crafts his characters with precision. There are few secondary characters in this novel – we see deep into the lives of Patty, Walter, their children Joey and Jessica, and Richard; as well as a slew of other characters.
Unfortunately, this story is heavily bogged down with political controversy and conservation battles. Walter finds passion in the conservation of the cerulean warbler, although his scheme to create a wildlife preserve involves kicking several hundred people out of their homes and working alongside a major oil company. While Franzen captures the tension between conservative and liberal viewpoints at the end of the century, it’s a little heavy-handed. Instead of intertwining political beliefs into the story, it feels as though the action must stop to explain the political landscape.
It seems almost impossible to consider Freedom without remembering Mr. Franzen’s critically acclaimed book The Corrections. While both novels deal with changing family dynamics, Freedom lacks the drive and occasional glimpses of hope that its predecessor possessed. There is no desperation to sneak into the other room to finish just a few more pages of Freedom.
This is due, in large part, to the bleak outlook for Patty, Walter, and their family throughout much of the novel. The characters are denied happiness at almost every turn, due to the cruel whims of fate and their own stubborn human nature. When some of the characters do find a moment of bliss or reconciliation, it seems too easy, as if Franzen realized that he should include them, rather than those moments fitting into the story.
Mr. Franzen is endlessly witty and perceptive. He masterfully mocks the hypocrisy of the people we meet in everyday life. However, the wry remarks fail to balance out the length, the dysfunction, or political discourse.
Late in the novel, Walter realizes that, “He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right. There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.” Unfortunately, the author seems to suffer from this as well. Freedom continues, as long as Franzen can come up with a new plot point, regardless of where it should have ended.
The question is ultimately why an author reveals to the readers the events and time period given within the book. In Freedom, it almost feels as if Mr. Franzen could not bear to part with his characters – an understandable reaction, as they are incredibly rich and nuanced. However, the reader is both ready to finish reading far before the end of the novel and surprised when the book ends when and where it does.
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010