Be glad in the Lord and rejoice! Psalm 32:11

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

When Oprah Winfrey started her Book Club in 1996, it was heralded as a shot in the arm for the reading (and publishing) world. Now, fourteen years and sixty-four books later, Ms. “O” can still generate a huge buzz over a book she selects and encourages her viewers to read.

So, for the beginning of her new and final season of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she chose “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, a book that she felt encompassed everything that it takes to make a book a masterpiece including sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Masterpiece?  In my opinion - no.

Decent story – yes, if you have a lot of patience.

Franzen’s story centers on the Berglund family – parents Patty and Walter and their two children, Joey and Jessica – a family who truly put the fun into dysfunctional. Spanning the time from Walter and Patty’s unusual college courtship, to their atypical family-raising days in St. Paul, Minnesota, to the simmering middle-age crises that would threaten the downfall of everything they held dear, this is a story with enough twists, turns, ups and downs to make even the staunchest rollercoaster fan queasy.

Patty Berglund was the kind of gal that once she put her mind to a project or an idea, she pursued it fanatically, often to the chagrin of those around her. Determined to be viewed as the perfect wife, parent and neighbor, it was Patty’s underlying dark past and untold secrets that would turn out to be her Achilles’ heel. Her obsessive attention to her son Joey would drive him away as a teenager; her daughter Jessica flourished despite her mother’s disinterest and husband Walter would soon turn to another to find passion and love, leaving Patty alone with her ghosts of past loves and “what could have beens.” Even her friends and neighbors tended to back away from Patty after a while.

Franzen does an admirable job in weaving together the story of three generations of Berglunds and their family psychosis and dramas, and he does this mostly through the eyes and words of Patty. The plot is well driven and evenly paced, and keeps the reader moving along, which is a good thing when you’ve got over 560 pages to plow through. His characters are quirky and interesting, and he develops their unique stories and pieces them into the overall picture very well.

Where I feel Franzen’s downfall arises is that as a main and central character, I frankly despised Patty – I found her petulant, inconsiderate and ungrateful for the life her husband struggled to give her while she wasted her time and energy longing for her husband’s best friend, a lover who had left Patty long ago. You know something is wrong when you find yourself yelling at a character who is just words on a page – but then again, maybe that was Franzen’s intention all along – to inspire an emotional reaction. I also had a problem with the way Franzen wraps up the story with an all-too-quick ending that had the flavor of an author who just wanted to be done with the whole thing.

As far as being a masterpiece novel, I just don’t equate “Freedom” with the great literary masterpieces such as “Grapes of Wrath,” “Lonesome Dove,” or “To Kill A Mockingbird.” These are great stories that are remembered as some of the best written stories in history. “Freedom” just isn’t a book that I personally can see sticking with me for a long time.



Jessica said...

I'm very torn on whether to read this book as reviews are very very mixed. I think I might give the Corrections a go first and see how well I get on with that.

Good review

Jean Lewis said...

I agree totally about this long-awaited tome. I hated the Patty character. Almost threw the book down during her first diatribe. Glad to hear your honest and fair review.