By the time Freedom was published in August 2010, it had been nine years since Jonathan Franzen’s immensely popular (and National Book Award winning) novel, The Corrections, made its own debut. Everyone, of course, wondered whether Freedom would compare favorably to The Corrections. It turns out that this 576-page (or 19-CD audio book) soap opera, while it does exhibit flashes of brilliance, does not match up well to its predecessor.
Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their two children. The Berglunds consider themselves leaders and trendsetters in their St. Paul community, a neighborhood of mostly like-minded people determined to leave the planet in better shape than they found it. They eat right, recycle madly, take a hands-on approach to raising their children, and practice what they preach. Walter and Patty are, in fact, particularly proud that Walter earns the family income as an environmental lawyer.
But all is not as it seems and, when family members begin to make one bad choice after the other, the Berglunds fall apart so quickly that everything they believe about themselves suddenly seems to be a bad joke on them. Suddenly, Walter is working for a nasty coal company in its efforts to scrape the top off a scenic West Virginia mountaintop, their son is living next door with his high school girlfriend, and Patty is waging a ludicrous war on the evil Republican right-wing redneck family sheltering him. It is little wonder then that Patty and Walter begin to look elsewhere for what they no longer have at home.
Freedom works well when Franzen first circles back to explain who Patty and Walter Berglund are and how they became the naively idealistic couple we see at the beginning of the book. Each is the product of a less-than-ideal upbringing in which they were the least favored child in the family. Patty, a superb, scholarship-earning basketball player, was largely ignored by her mother and scarred by her father’s conscious failure to protect her from harm. Walter, from a much poorer family, faced similar problems when his mother failed to protect him from an abusive father who seemed to care only for Walter’s brothers. Patty and Walter are determined to do a better job with their own children. Throw Walter’s best friend (the man Patty still wishes she had married), rock star wannabe Richard Katz, into the mix, and anything might happen to this seemingly perfect family.
The problem is that Franzen does not know when to quit. He creates interesting characters and situations, but spends as many pages detailing side issues such as strip-mining, overpopulation concerns, and the procurement of war materials in South America as he does on the book’s central storyline. And it backfires because the more he reveals about these subplots, the less believable they become. Too, David LeDoux, reader of the audio version of the book, does not help things by failing to differentiate between the voices and cadences of the various characters. They all speak with the same voice and tone, even down to having the same irritating laugh. This may, of course, be more a product of the writing than the reading, but it does become annoying – although I do believe that an audio version of the book is the only format I would have finished.
I am going to split the difference on this one and rate it a three because its good and bad points tend to offset each other.
Rated at: 3.0