Jonathan Franzen achieved notoriety almost a decade ago when he and Oprah had their falling out over The Corrections. I took a pass then, but the extensive fanfare surrounding his new book, Freedom, drew me in this time, and it’s quite likely I’ll soon find myself turning the pages of his other books.
I’m not sure why, but I almost liked Freedom better in hindsight than I did while reading it – even though I was compelled to get back to the book quickly during the week or so it took to finish it. The novel is long and I was a bit impatient with some of the subplots, but looking at the work as a whole, each of them is important with little that could have been easily cut. Franzen has structured the book carefully, and the writing rings true across the broad variety of characters and subject matter, revealing the inherent complexities of modern-day life. A number of parallels come up in his multiple-plot storyline, but in each case they are handled with integrity regarding their particular situations and circumstances. Nothing feels unduly forced.
Freedom is set in contemporary America and follows the lives of the four members of the Berglund family over the course of the past 30 years. Its major concerns are the personal choices they make regarding family, love, friendship, infidelity, and work, as well as the threats of overpopulation and environmental degradation. Franzen’s characters are a richly imagined and guilt-wracked bunch, and the reader accompanies them through the travails of their various decisions. “Mistakes were made” is an underlying refrain, and the understanding of freedom itself is laced with disappointment and regret.
That Oprah has again endorsed Franzen and his new novel is perfectly suited to a book about complicated strivings and untidy resolutions. This may well be the big American book of the year – it is ambitious, memorable, and has important things to say.
For more reviews and commentary, see the Complete Review.