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GOOD Book Club: Your Reviews of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

To conclude GOOD's inaugural book club, we offer parting thoughts on Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and post your reviews of the book. Warning: Spoilers.


To conclude GOOD's inaugural book club, we offer parting thoughts on Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and post some of your reviews of the book.

Warning: Spoilers abound.

The two closing sections of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom unfold convulsively, as the characters' hurl themselves (or crawl) toward what resolution they can find after enduring the psychological and emotional beatings of the book's first 500 pages. In the self-imposed exile of Nameless Lake, after losing his wife to another man and his lover to an automobile crash, Walter—poised to disappear into grief, self-pity, and loneliness—succumbs to the battle with his neighbor (over her bird-hungry cat) that mirrors Patty's from the book's opening pages. Meanwhile, Patty has returned to her family, which she aims to unite; her redemptive turn as a unifier is convincingly thorough. That the Berglunds eventually reconcile, though, does not wrap the story in a proverbial bow; even if it did, the story would still bear its scars proudly.

Freedom, is about much more than just the unraveling Berglunds and those people they encounter. Where The Corrections was Franzen's assault on the pharmaceutically enhanced lives of post-Cold War 1990s America, Freedom incorporates elements of our "warming," "terror"-ized, digitally connected lives in the post-9/11 nation. In both books, the family is the cornerstone; in both books, family members' individual plot lines connect us to the world at large. Ultimately, as in a greek tragedy, everyone is culpable—for the degradation of our environment, for the haste with which we go to war, for our inability to live with (or without) one another. However, like a Shakespearean romance or comedy, in the end, a sense of unity prevails. Then again, so do the wars, and mountaintop removals, and betrayals.

With all that in mind, we turn to your reviews. The first comes from GOOD reader Eluabs:

“Freedom” is a sweeping view of contemporary life in America, yet it’s ultimately a book about self-absorbed baby boomers struggling with the choices they made and grasping to explain themselves to the children they raised. At the story’s core are Patty and Walter Berglund: raising two millennial children, they follow all the rules of a proper American family, but despite their seemingly best efforts the family still falls apart. Its a familiar story, but as Franzen slowly walks us through the wreckage it becomes clear that the family’s disintegration is not due to crushing external forces or a rigid social structure, but because they are each free to follow their own desires. For Franzen, having the freedom to do what we want, to act on our own self-interest leaves us lost and desolate. Responsibility and connection is what actually saves us and ultimately gives us meaning. As the Berglund moves beyond their selfish destruction it is this sense of accountability that ultimately offers them redemption.

However, the Berglund should not be praised for all their good intentions. Even when they take up responsibility its often selective and hollow, if not imperious. At times you can almost hear them echoing Kipling that for the sake of humanity we must take up the burden to rectify the world.

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The next comes from Ben Kostrzewa:

Halfway through Freedom it felt like it was too unhappy to enjoy. However, the saving grace of the novel is the characters, who can be discussed like friends known too well, or, more likely, your family. Walter and Patty, mirrored by their children Joey and Jessica in entanglements, passions and faults, represent the political universe of America. Walter is passionate in his progressivism to escape his destructive blue-collar family, while Patty's rebellion against her liberal feminist family is to be a great housewife. The other character is Walter's scurrilous friend Richard, who serves as a manic moral compass, bringing joy and misery to Patty and Walter. The relationships of the book mimic the dramas in Tolstoy's tales that Franzen demands we draw comparisons to. Just as Anna Karenina opens with happy families being all the same, Franzen notes that unhappiness can bring happiness if it is the right kind of unhappiness. However, the eventual redemption for the characters is necessary, for it validates the quotidian struggles of the characters, and, in doing so, all of our emotional lives. Even if Patty and Walter's resentments are petty, love misplaced, or mistakes cliche, they are shared by all of us.

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Finally, here's one from LexDevo:

It remains to be seen whether Jonathan Franzen's latest, "Freedom," will eventually rank as a "great American novel" or be considered a "big important book" capable of standing the test of time as a classic of American literature. What I do know, however, is that I, like many, waited nine years to read Franzen's follow-up to "The Corrections" and found myself unable to put it down. I extended my commute to work to allow more time on the subway spent with the dysfunctional Berglund family; I found myself spending less time on the internet, keeping my TV off and missing my "must-see" shows so that I could sit quietly and get lost in some of the most well-developed, three-dimensional characters I have read in years, becoming invested in their fictional lives. In an age where diminishing attention spans are bombarded with information at an astonishing rate each and every day, perhaps the greatest achievement of "Freedom" is not simply that it captures the era of the last ten years of our country through the lens of this fantastically-created family, but that it invites the reader to sit down and evaluate his or her own life during this time.

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What do you think? Is this book a tragedy? A satire? A comedy of errors? Is it, as Time hailed it, a great American novel?