I know I’m a little late in the game, but I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I read it largely out of curiosity; so many reviewers loved this book, Oprah promoted it, and yet…there was a backlash in some circles against the praise it received.
In the end, I feel muddled about my own opinion of the book. Certainly, Franzen is a good writer. His book was absorbing, to an extent, and I felt that the end did bring things together in a way that added layers of meaning to some of the earlier parts of the book. I wanted to read it to the end to find out what he would do with his characters, and that, in itself, means that something about the book interested me.
On the other hand, I actually skimmed through some sections, especially the extensive passages about environmental degradation (and I have a Master’s Degree in environmental science), which felt cynical, hammered, and out of synch with the rest of the book.
I was impressed with Franzen’s vocabulary, which had me clicking relatively often on my Kindle’s built-in dictionary to look up words such as “nadir,” “parsecs,” and “keening.” But I also felt that there was a certain “literariness” or “intellectualism” that was being showcased just a bit — the best way to say it is that I noticed it instead of feeling fully absorbed in the story. I especially noticed where the word “freedom” was dropped into certain sentences or paragraphs, and it almost felt like a too obvious device.
But I think, for me, what was missing most was a sense of heart in the characters. I realize that Franzen wasn’t trying to create especially likeable characters, and that his characters are complicated and flawed, therefore designed to reflect real people. But I didn’t always believe the characters or their flaws, or at least I didn’t understand them. I didn’t understand how such a principled character as Walter, for example, could fall for the environmental balogna he was being fed by a major corporation, and how or why he would justify his own actions. There were certain things about each character that puzzled me. I didn’t get Joey, the son of main characters Walter and Patty, at all. The description of him as a teenager, and later as his young adult persona, didn’t come across as real to me. And although I’ve read at least one review that said Franzen understands women characters’ inner life better than many male novelists, as shown, supposedly, in the sections where Patty’s voice comes through in her own narration of an “autobiography,” I actually couldn’t tell much difference between the voice of the autobiographer and the voice of the narrator of the other sections. For me, the book felt very “male,” and it became tiresome to read about the way women and their bodies were perceived by the major male characters.
I guess it’s obvious that I didn’t love this book. But I have to say again that it did interest me at least, and that after I read it, I did think about some of its major themes — the definition of freedom, whether personal freedom truly leads to happiness, and whether personal freedom is more important than the greater good of a family, a community, a country, or the planet. So I give Franzen credit for picking up on these questions and laying out some important things to think about, and for writing a book that received such attention and acclaim.
But as to the comparisons to Tolstoy in some reviews (since Tolstoy is so pointedly mentioned in the book)…well, maybe I shouldn’t have read Anna Karenina right before I read this book. When I read Anna Karenina, I completely lost sight of any literary effort or design. I felt as if I was having a personal conversation with the author about the human heart, and I never wanted it to end. Maybe that’s just more my kind of book.