Continuing my reading trek through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I’ve just finished “Freedom: a Novel” by Jonathan Franzen.
A wedge of a book at just over 560 pages, it’s the contemporary story of Patty and Walter Berglund, who begin their married life together in St. Paul, Minnesota. But all is not well. Patty was a star college basketball player who can’t stop wishing her parents had attended her games. As a parent herself she sets limits that are pretty squishy. Walter’s an earnest man who eventually aligns himself with an environmental concern that itself is aligned with alarming mining interests. Walter’s best friend and Patty are obsessed with each other. Their son moves in with his girlfriend next door. Walter becomes involved with his assistant. He seems to walk toward the life of a misanthropic hermit. Franzen excels in detailing the ways in which each person here falls short. And yet, and yet…within this laundry list of dysfunction, every once in a while someone sees that glimmer of a better way to live and love.
My complaint–too many pages. Franzen’s gift for the absurd, the funny-but-sad ways in which people interact with each other and the world, gains too much momentum. The story sags in the middle, a shame because in the end it slows down to some satisfying emotional conclusions. Every so often, Franzen drops a nugget of drop-dead lovely insight or description.
I tend to retain one or two images from every book, and from “Freedom” I will remember Joey Berglund swallowing his wedding ring and seeking it in the toilet while on a vacation with another woman. I will remember that he gained great confidence from his success in finding it.
This novel has had so much press that many people will be reading it to stay in the literary loop. I’m pretty sure that book groups would find plenty to discuss here, and so I recommend this to groups who’ll take on a long novel. I also recommend it to readers of contemporary stories, people who seek out irony and absurdity, and yet who are not put off by true love–in all its crazy shapes.