Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom': EW Shelf Life Book Club

In the month or so since Freedom has come out, it’s been obscured by all the baggage surrounding it: the hype, the reviews, the controversy, the whole Oprah thing. We’ve sort of lost sight of the novel itself, and that’s too bad. I don’t, like some reviewers, think it’s one of the best novels of the year (let alone the “novel of the century,” as one newspaper called it). To me it’s one of those big, old-fashioned novels, the kind you can really lose yourself in, the very opposite of the spare and bloodless kind of fiction so in style these days.

But. First things first. What I liked most about Freedom was Franzen’s ability to paint a portrait of a marriage. The opening pages–setting the stage, penciling in Walter and Patty Berglund in broad strokes that grow ever finer and more detailed–were, I thought, almost compulsively readable. I was sucked right in. But then Franzen did a couple of things that knocked the novel off its tracks for me.

First, he inserted that lonnnnggggggg autobiography Patty wrote at the behest of her therapist. I get why he did it; as readers, we need historical detail to place Patty in context. And at least it’s more creative than using a flashback, possibly the most tired & overworked literary element there is. But did the memoir throw anyone else for a loop? For one thing, it was written in that jarring (for me, anyway) third-person. And for another…I didn’t buy it. It didn’t sound like Patty we’d come to know in only a few short pages; it sounded like Franzen. (“Based on her inability to recall her state of consciousness in her first three years at college, the autobiographer suspects she simply didn’t have a state of consciousness.”) Thoughts?

After Patty’s memoir, Franzen gave, basically, third-person accounts of the marriage from three different people: Patty’s best friend Richard Katz; Walter and Patty’s son Joey; and finally, Walter himself. Okay, fine. So what’s missing here? Or, rather, who’s missing? I’d argue that it’s the one person who’s curiously absent from the entire book: Walter and Patty’s daughter Jessica. If you’re describing a marriage and a family through different viewpoints as Franzen is–and he’s going to a lot of trouble to do so–it seems odd, and wrong, to leave someone out. Anyone else agree? Or am I alone on this one?

About some of the other criticism heaped on Franzen, eh. I don’t mind that the novel is occasionally blowsy and overdone, or that a good hundred pages probably could have been whacked in the editing process. I loved the dialogue, the descriptions, the lush language. How about the rest of you? If you’ve finished Freedom, do you like it? How do you  think it compares to The Corrections? And please, weigh in on the issue of Patty’s memoir and Jessica’s omission from the plot. I’m curious to know what people think.

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  • Lauren

    I just finished the book last night and I also thought the omission of Jessica was strange. As I read I expected to see her perspective come up next. I enjoyed the book but I thought “The Corrections” was a better read.

  • Patrick

    I don’t know about “wrong,” but I agree that the omission of a Jessica POV section was odd. But I didn’t really think of the Joey section as his “third person account of the marriage.” To me, that section was more about his relationship with Connie and the paralells to Walter & Patty.

    • Jeric

      Ooo girl! My dad sent me his Nikon gear (D300 + some lenses) so I’m going to play arunod with it to see if I like it better than the 7D. What are your thoughts so far? I’ve been playing with it for the past 20 minutes and so far I’m LOVING how fast it locks focus.

  • bill

    this book annoyed me to no end. I don’t even consider it good, nevermind worthy of any special interest that the author receives on the basis of another book that wasn’t the be all end all. don’t get franzen at ALL!

    • Tina Jordan

      Well…frankly…I’m not sure I “get” him either. I liked parts of this book well enough, but I was blown away by the Time cover and all the over-the-top media attention. People, the book’s not THAT good!

      • Greg

        I agree, you both don’t get him. That’s why he tried to pull out of Oprah the first time: he’s not a mass market author. Stephen King, whom I love, is mass market author. The Dome is very good in a MUCH different way than Freedom. I bet you prefer it. I like both, I prefer Franzen, but I get why he seems like a dick. Franzen even gets why you think he’s a dick. That’s why I think he’s awesome.

  • chriskw

    There were times when I was reading this book that I regretted ever reading it. But then there were other times when I thought how great it was to read about the growth and evolution of an American family.

    I, too, was expecting Jessica to be have POV chapters as well. But Franzen makes it clear that Patty initially had a stronger relationship with her son. And maybe it would have been a little redundant to include another child viewpoint.

    This novel was a great read just for seeing how people change from childhood to adulthood (we see more of this from Patty’s perspective in her memoir, but I think most of what “she” wrote was the truth).

    The characters were a lot more developed than last week’s book, Ape House.

    I haven’t read The Corrections. But I think I will give it a try sometime in the near future.

  • Leila

    I think Freedom made more of an impact on me than The Corrections. I think it went deeper on the character’s emotions and it is a very real portrait of middle age. All the characters are deeply flawed, self-absorbed, and yet likable.

    • Tina Jordan

      I agree. And as a colleague of mine here pointed out, they aren’t just rehashed characters from The Correction: they’re brand-new, completely original characters.

  • Read It

    Tina, Your comments mirrored some of my reactions exactly! The book is a good read, but structurally it seemed messy to me. (Uneasiness with a female POV?) To your critique I would add that Walter’s career change seemed somewhat cartoonish, and perhaps strains credulity, and that Franzen’s tone wavers between sympathetic and satiric, confusing me about how I was supposed to interpret the book.

  • Tina Jordan

    Thoughts on the memoir portion, anyone?

  • Adam

    I just finished the memoir portion and that’s what has dragged me in to the book. With the hustle of life, I’m finding it harder to sit and concentrate and prior to the memoir I had to keep looking back at the cover flap to see who was who. I didn’t feel them and Patty’s memoir has drawn me in, I know the characters now. It’s useful.

  • sandy jay

    I have to admit that I was disappointed with this work. It was definitely longer than it needed to be, and there was not one truly likable character. Everyone was so unhappy, and seemed to go out of their way to make everyone around them unhappy. It was a whole bunch of smart people acting dumb, and while most of the writing was captivating, the nastiness of the tone just turned me off of the whole book.

  • Lalitha

    I think that the exclusion of Jessica’s POV was purposeful and powerful. All of the stars in this novel revolve around Planet Patty, and by the end of the novel, we don’t know Jessica, because Patty doesn’t either. That Patty herself never recognizes that her daughter suffers the same second-best resentment that Patty did is one of the novel’s great tragedies.

  • Lalitha

    If this isn’t the novel of the decade, I’d love to know what is… and if the answer is The Help, or Netherlands, or Elegance of the Hedgehog, or Never Let Me Go, or Olive Kitteridge, then sign me up as a full-fledged faithful of the Franzen flock.

    • DarkLayers

      I personally loved Never Let Me Go very much, and preferred it to what I read of Freedom. But it’s not the only answer to that question:

      The Road by Cormac McCarthy;
      Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell;
      2666 by Bolano;
      The Known World, Edward Jones
      Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

  • Ian

    Franzen’s work is very smart, very funny, and very ambitious. It is also, for all its insightfulness, unemotional. I will laugh, nod my head in stunned recognition, shake my head at his scope. But will he ever make me feel? Cry? His intellect is massive, but he doesn’t have enough heart for that.

    • georgina

      Lacks heart. That is the best criticism of this book. Franzen is extremely smart and hilarious, but I felt nothing for the character’s respective fates. I felt there was more compassion for the birds.

  • DarkLayers

    hey I know I’m wayyy past the due date, but there’s something I feel compelled to ask about. Tina, you talk about those “big old-fashioned novels” as opposed to “spare, bloodless” fiction.

    May I say that I consider some of that unfortunate. Meghan O’Rourke pointed out that many critics tend to have a bias against small novels. In the NYT Poll on Great American Fiction in 2006, 4 of the 5 highest vote getters were over 350 pages. In the Millions panel survey for fiction of the past decade, all of the top 4 were over 350 pages.

    Big old-fashioned reads? 5 of the top 6 novels on the Modern Library list of the 20th century are under 350 pages in terms of their novel text. And ‘Ulysses’ and ‘In Search of Lost Time’ definitely don’t read like ‘Freedom’ does.

  • DarkLayers

    novel text excluding added commentary and appendices

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