Monday, November 29, 2010

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

Normally my book reviews are also recommendations. I write about books I enjoyed, in case others might want to enjoy them too. This time I may be making an exception.

I'm not sure if I enjoyed Freedom, or if I think my friends ought to take the time to wade through its 562 pages. Even though Oprah said, "I am really betting that 'Freedom' by Jonathan Franzen will end up being for you, as it is for me, one of the best novels you have ever read."

See, I did manage to read all 562 pages, and I wouldn't have done that if I'd disliked the book, would I? And very often I found myself chuckling over Franzen's characterizations or political asides or snippets of conversation. The man writes well.

I also enjoyed the vast extended soap opera involving Walter and Patty Berglund; their son Joey and his girlfriend Connie; Walter's feckless parents and brothers; Patty's equally misguided parents, brother, and sisters; Walter's college roommate, the enigmatic Richard; Joey's college roommate Jonathan and his amoral sister Jenna; the highly improbable Lalitha ...

Well, it's a bit like a book Dickens would have written, if Dickens had worried, not about the oppressed poor, but rather about the self-destructive middle class.

And maybe that's why I'm not sure if I liked the book.

It is well titled: it really is about freedom. Franzen uses some form of the word about once every five pages. It is about people who want to be free, who do various things to achieve freedom, but who in the end do not know how to use their freedom to make either themselves or anyone else happy. So Freedom would be a fine choice for a book club that is patient with long books and that wants to have a philosophical discussion about what freedom is, when it is good, when it is bad, how to achieve it, what to do with it.

But since book clubs are generally attended by women, let me advise potential readers that the various stories may contain more male sexual fantasy than you really wanted to read about. Franzen's men tend to think with their dicks, and most of his women, for some reason, are willing to do anything the men want. It isn't porn, but eventually the voyeurism gets tiring.

And despite its comic-novel moments and its odd Hollywood ending, Freedom is a typical Oprah-book downer. Its characters struggle against themselves, and mostly lose. Don't say I didn't warn you.


Sarah Pulliam said...

Thanks for your review. I recently finished "Freedom" and wish I had spend my fiction reading on something else. I didn't love any of the characters and felt tired after reading it.

Marcia said...

I agree that Franzen made quite sure the book would attract a lot of male readers. That said, I (not a male) liked the book. It was postmodern without being narrow; I liked its ambition and humor (mostly) and I did cry a little in the last chapter, a reaction which suprised me.

Jim Dahlman said...

Congratulations for finishing the book. I stalled out after about 200 pages. Based on the reviews I'd read to that point, I kept waiting for the brilliance, but it never seemed to arrive. Finally I got frustrated and maybe just plain bored with the characters. In a nutshell, I didn't care much about them.