“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen is a novel that has been called a “Great American Novel” far too many times for me to put off reading it despite its imposing size. Fortunately for me, this novel is a relatively easy and gripping read and lives up to all the hype surrounding it. It is another shining example of good literature that is not hard to read and where the author hasn't tried to be too clever. If you haven't read it yet, it is well worth the dekko and will reward the time you invest in reading it.
The book revolves around the life of Patty and Walter Berglund. They look quite the ideal couple when they move into the suburban Ramsey Hill neighborhood of St Paul, renovating an old Victorian-era house on their own and raising their two children in it. The book begins by describing the couple and their teenaged children Joey and Jessica as seen by their neighbors, switches gears by showing the frank memoirs of Patty written on her therapist's suggestion, describes Walter's background and finally how their marriage evolves over time. Entwined with their lives is that of their friend Richard Katz, a struggling rock musician who achieves a kind of success later in life and a misogynist who nevertheless tries to bed as many women as possible.
Patty was a basketball-star and the athletic misfit in an affluent East Coast family. Her family hush up her high-school rape by the son of wealthy and well-connected parents instead of supporting her. Walter was the responsible middle son of an alcoholic father and a sick mother, who has a strong sense of environmental preservation and sustainable development. Patty falls for Walter's close friend Richard, but decides to marry Walter instead, who deeply loves her. Patty tries to be the perfect mom deeply involved with her kids, but ends up alienating them instead. Her son Joey has an affair with the daughter of their neighbor and moves out to live with them. Her marriage with Walter threatens to fall apart when she has an extra-marital affair and Walter develops feelings for his much younger Indian secretary Lalitha. The rest of the book describes how their lives play out and how they come to terms with it.
The development of characters in this novel is superb. You really get under the skin of the major characters and begin to empathize with their actions and decisions in life. For a somewhat reclusive author famously dismissive of popular culture and the Internet, Mr Franzen comes across as remarkably perceptive of people and quite respectful of his reader. The prose seems effortless and friendly, yet it must have taken a lot of hard work and considerable amounts of restraint on his part. The diction is good and you find yourself ruminating over some of the partcularly good phrases and sentences. As a random example:
To Seth Paulsen, who talked about Pattty a little too often for his wife's taste, the Berglunds were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.
The central idea of the book seems to be the interaction of our desire to live a life of freedom with the corresponding desires of others around us and how this shapes our lives. There are several references to this responsible assertion of freedom throughout the book - from the engraved message Patty sees in her daughter's college proclaiming “USE WELL THY FREEDOM” to the American war on Iraq to the description of Walter's grandfather Einar Berglund, an early immigrant from Sweden into America:
America, for Einar, was the land of unSwedish freedom, the place of wide-open spaces where a son could still imagine he was special. But nothing distrubs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special.
Forming the backdrop of this story are several recurring themes of modern American life - from the alienating suburbanization of cities to the greedy exploitation of natural resources for short-term profit and the concomitant destruction of the environment to America's war on Afghanistan and Iraq. I can thus understand why this book is called a modern “Great American Novel”.
Wowed by this novel, which seemed intimidating at first, I am now looking forward to reading the author's other celebrated novel, “The Corrections”.