Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen book review

Posted by lea at 3:50 PM
You'll have to forgive me because I'm about to gush. I LOVED this book. I loved the way Franzen manages to get so far inside a character's head it's hard to believe they're not really in your world. I loved the way the relationships between the characters dip and dive in a rhythmic pattern much like a dance. And I particularly loved Franzen's writing. It's seemingly simple but layered with complexity and insight in a way that makes you catch your breath at just how exquisitely one can wield the English language.

On the surface it's about a suburban New York couple, Patty and Walter Berglund, and the course of their marriage. They're ordinary people - so terribly ordinary - Walter the earnest nice guy and Patty smiling-so-hard-it-hurts to be the person she believes she should be but is falling short of. But it's in their very ordinariness that the novel becomes quite extraordinary.

In a way I think Freedom is about our need for particular people in our lives, and how it can inhibit our desire to pursue our individual liberties (our 'freedom') when what we want and what they want don't align. The way relationships tie people together, so when we pull at our end of the string, it can't help but affect those attached to us. Action and consequence are no better highlighted than in Patty's desire for Richard Katz, Walter's best friend and weathered rock star.

Katz, oddly, becomes one of the most intriguing characters for me. His love for Walter seems at odds with his image, yet when he hurts him, it's almost like he's doing it more for Walter's sake than to betray him. In the end you wonder if Katz, despite not really knowing himself, is actually the best judge of the human heart in clearly seeing what Patty and Walter's marriage really was (which neither of them were able to do or at least admit to), and then smashing it in order to put it together as intended. Or was he just a selfish bastard? There's that too.

All the main characters are complex and completely three-dimensional. There are even instances where things are set up so you expect a certain outcome, but the character's thoughts and feelings defy your expectations of what-should-happen-in-a-book with the realness of their instinctive response. It is simply marvellous. For example, when Richard goes back to see Patty and is full of coolly hesitant anticipation, but when he sees her he realises she's a pain in the butt and she's gotten kinda old. But it still doesn't stop him from wanting her.

The reversal of expectations extends through to the plot, where Patty and Walter's relationships with their kids crossover at a point when they're at their worst and in most greatest need. Patty basks in the glow of Joey's confidence and success while Jessica is an image of her responsible dad. Yet when the shit hits the fan, all the allegiances change and they find strength in the opposite parent/sibling. There's a certain elegance to this, as it shows just how much Patty and Walter need the influence of the other in their lives.

Despite how much I enjoyed Freedom, I'm ready to admit it's not a perfect book and it's not for everyone (if you get easily frustrated, don't even bother). There are a few things that, in my mind, weren't quite resolved. Like Connie's weirdness. Okay, we do begin to like her better by the end of the book, especially as she rises in Walter's estimation. But still - are we supposed to forget that she's a complete kook? Ultimately I thought she must have a mental disability (causing her unhealthy obsession with Joey), but I guess that's pretty true to life. From my time working with The Salvation Army and their clients, I realised there are a LOT of mentally unbalanced people out there somehow managing to function in the world, so I guess it's a reflection of reality.

If we're talking themes I think it's about human nature: our raw motivations, our inability to quash unhealthy desires even in the face of the purest love, the influence of the family on the individual, and the difficulty (but not impossibility) of changing our base and often selfish nature. But there is still hope.

It's easy to see why Jonathan Franzen is touted so hugely in America as a rising literary force (what a cliche, but in this case true). He could write the back of a cereal box and it would very likely win the Pulitzer Prize. I'm giving this 10/10.


Laura said...

10/10! That's a big call! As much as I complained about this book, I inexplicably cried through the whole final chapter (and did not at all in the actual tragic part, that was a big fat non-event). There is a new newsreader on channel seven's sunrise who looks similar to what I imagine Lalitha would look like, and I just can't stand her!

To me the beauty of Franzen's writing is that it is so unassuming, I didn't notice how good it was until I tried reading something else, and that just seemed tacky and pretentious in comparison. Might have to read non-fiction for awhile to forget.

lea on February 3, 2011 at 10:48 AM said...

@Laura: I know what you mean! After reading JF I decided there's just no point in even harbouring a tiny space in the back of my mind to write my own novel. He's set the bar too high.

I did debate internally about the 10/10 but in the end I decided it was worth it. I just think his writing is perfection.

I didn't really mind Lalitha that much, but you're right it wasn't all that tragic for anyone but Walter. I also read the last chapter with my heart in my throat and I found I was breathing really deeply - like the heaving chest and all!

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