Freedom (Jonathan Franzen novel)
First edition cover
|Publisher||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Publication date||August 31, 2010|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
Freedom follows several members of an American family, the Berglunds, as well as their close friends and lovers, as complex and troubled relationships unfold over many years. The book follows them through the last decades of the twentieth century and concludes near the beginning of the Obama administration.
Freedom opens with a short history of the Berglund family from the perspective of their nosy neighbors. The Berglunds are portrayed as a quintessential liberal middle-class family, and they are among the first families to move back into urban St. Paul, Minnesota, after years of white flight to the suburbs. Patty Berglund is an unusually young and pretty homemaker with a self-deprecating sense of humor; her husband Walter is a mild-mannered lawyer with strong environmentalist leanings.
They have one daughter, Jessica, and a son, Joey, who early on displays an independent streak and an interest in making money. Joey becomes sexually involved with a neighborhood teen named Connie and begins to rebel against his mother, going so far as to move in with Connie, her mother, and her mother's boyfriend Blake, making Patty and Walter increasingly unstable. After several unhappy years the family relocates to Washington, D.C., abandoning the neighborhood and house they worked so hard to improve. Walter takes a job with an unorthodox environmental project, tied to big coal.
The second portion of the book takes the form of an autobiography of Patty Berglund, composed at the suggestion of her therapist. The autobiography tells of Patty's youth as a star basketball player, and her increasing alienation from her artistically inclined parents and sisters. Instead of attending an East Coast elite college like her siblings, she gets a basketball scholarship to the University of Minnesota, and adopts the life of the athlete. She meets an attractive but unattainable indie rock musician named Richard Katz, and his nerdy but kind roommate, Walter Berglund. After her basketball career-ending knee injury, Patty suddenly becomes desperate for male affection, and after failing to woo Richard, she settles down with Walter, who had been patiently courting her for more than a year. We learn that Patty retained her desire for Richard and eventually had a brief affair with him at the Berglunds' lakeside cabin.
The novel then jumps ahead to New York City in 2004 and shifts to the story of Walter and Patty's friend Richard, who has finally succeeded in becoming a minor indie rock star in his middle age. His hit album Nameless Lake tells the story of his brief love affair with Patty at the Berglunds' lakeside cabin in Minnesota. Richard is uncomfortable with commercial success, throws away his new-found money, and returns to building roof decks for wealthy people in Manhattan. Walter calls him out of the blue to enlist his help as celebrity spokesman for an environmental campaign. Walter has taken a job in Washington, D.C. working for a coal mining magnate who wants to strip mine a section of West Virginia forest before turning it into a songbird preserve of future environmental value. Walter hopes to use some of this project's funding to hold a concert to combat overpopulation, the common factor behind all his environmental concerns, and he believes that Richard will be able to rally well known musicians to his cause. Meanwhile, Walter's marriage to Patty has been deteriorating steadily and his pretty young assistant Lalitha has fallen deeply in love with him.
In parallel, the Berglunds' estranged, Republican son Joey attempts to finance his college life at the University of Virginia by taking on a dubious subcontract to provide spare parts for outdated supply trucks during the Iraq War. While at college, he marries his childhood sweetheart, but dares not tell his parents. After visiting his roommate's family in the DC suburbs, he also pursues his friend's beautiful sister Jenna and is exposed to her father's Zionist, neoconservative politics. After months of pursuing Jenna, when she finally wants him to have sex with her, he cannot maintain an erection. Later he becomes conflicted after making $850,000 selling defective truck parts to military suppliers in Iraq. In the end Joey gives away the excess proceeds of his profiteering, reconciles with his parents, settles down with Connie, and moves into a sustainable coffee business with the help of his father Walter.
Now, Richard's re-appearance destroys Walter and Patty's weakening marriage. Richard tries to convince Patty to leave Walter, but she shows Richard the autobiography she wrote as "therapy", trying to convince him that she's still in love with Walter. Richard deliberately leaves the autobiography on Walter's desk, and Walter reads Patty's true thoughts. Walter kicks Patty out of the house and she moves to Jersey City to be with Richard, but the relationship only lasts six months. Later, she moves to Brooklyn alone and takes a job at a private school, discovering her skill for teaching younger children. When Patty leaves him, Walter has a catharsis on live television, revealing his contempt for the displaced West Virginian families and his various commercial backers. Local rednecks respond by dragging him from the platform and beating him up. He is promptly fired by the environmental trust, but his TV debacle makes him a viral video hero to radical youth across the nation. He and his assistant Lalitha become lovers and continue their plans to combat overpopulation through a concert to rally young people in the hills of West Virginia. Lalitha is killed in a suspicious car accident a few days before the concert is due to take place. Shattered, and having lost both of the women who loved him, Walter retreats to his family's lakeside vacation house back in Minnesota. He becomes known to a new street of neighbors as a cranky old recluse, obsessed with house cats killing birds nesting on his property.
After a few years living in Brooklyn, Patty's father dies and she is forced to settle the fight that erupts within her family of spoiled bohemians as they attempt to split up the much-diminished family fortune. This experience helps Patty to mature. After a few years of living alone, she appraises the emptiness of her life and honestly faces her advancing age. She decides to hunt down Walter, the only man who had ever really loved her. She drives to the lakeside cabin in Minnesota, and despite his rage and confusion, he eventually agrees to take her back. The book ends in 2008 as they leave as a couple to return to Patty's job in New York City, after turning their old lakeside vacation home into a cat-proof fenced bird sanctuary, named in memory of Lalitha.
After the critical acclaim and popular success of his third novel The Corrections in 2001, Franzen began work on his fourth full-length novel. When asked during an October 30, 2002 interview on Charlie Rose how far he was into writing the new novel, Franzen replied:
I'm about a year of frustration and confusion into it...Y'know, I'm kind of down at the bottom of the submerged ice berg peering up for the surface of the water...I don't have doubt about my ability to write a good book, but I have lots of doubt about what it's going to look like.
Franzen went on to suggest that a basic story outline was in place, and that his writing of the new novel was like a "guerilla war" approaching different aspects of the novel (alluding to characters, dialogue, plot development etc.). Franzen also agreed that he would avoid public appearances, saying that "...getting some work done is the vacation" from the promotional work surrounding The Corrections and How To Be Alone.
On October 16, 2009, Franzen made an appearance alongside David Bezmozgis at the New Yorker Festival at the Cedar Lake Theatre to read a portion of his forthcoming novel. Sam Allard, writing for North By Northwestern website covering the event, said that the "...material from his new (reportedly massive) novel" was "as buoyant and compelling as ever" and "marked by his familiar undercurrent of tragedy". Franzen read "an extended clip from the second chapter."
On March 12, 2010, details about the plot and content of Freedom were published in the Macmillan fall catalogue for 2010.
In an interview with Dave Haslam on October 3, 2010 Franzen discussed why he had called the book Freedom:
The reason I slapped the word on the book proposal I sold three years ago without any clear idea of what kind of book it was going to be is that I wanted to write a book that would free me in some way. And I will say this about the abstract concept of 'freedom'; it's possible you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are, than if you maintain this kind of uncommitted I'm free-to-be-this, free-to-be-that, faux freedom.
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Publishers Weekly wrote "Franzen pits his excavation of the cracks in the nuclear family’s facade against a backdrop of all-American faults and fissures, but where the book stands apart is that, no longer content merely to record the breakdown, Franzen tries to account for his often stridently unlikable characters and find where they (and we) went wrong, arriving at—incredibly—genuine hope."
Alan Cheuse of National Public Radio wrote "Despite the brilliance, or maybe even because of it, I found the novel quite unappealing, maybe because every line, every insight, seems covered with a light film of disdain. Franzen seems never to have met a normal, decent, struggling human being whom he didn't want to make us feel ever so slightly superior to. His book just has too much brightness and not enough color."
After Franzen appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on December 6, 2010, Alexander Nazaryan wrote in the New York Daily News, "Leo Tolstoy - whose Anna Karenina also was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, though a little posthumously - could write of Russian peasants with the same candor and curiosity he had for St. Petersburg high society. Franzen can write about a gentrifying family in St. Paul. Or maybe in St. Louis. But that’s about it. 'Maybe I’m doomed as a novelist never to do anything but stories of Midwestern families,' Franzen suggested earlier this year, and I don’t think he was joking." 
In The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg wrote "Readers looking for the pleasures of The Corrections will find all of them here, in force. But they are also likely to come away from this novel moved in harder-to-fathom ways – and grateful for it. Which is to express the hope that, amid the general childishness of the cultural scene he skewers so lovingly, Jonathan Franzen and his audience may be growing up together."
Michiko Kakutani wrote "Jonathan Franzen’s galvanic new novel, “Freedom,” showcases his impressive literary toolkit — every essential storytelling skill, plus plenty of bells and whistles — and his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life. With this book, he’s not only created an unforgettable family, he’s also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters... This time, in creating conflicted, contrarian individuals capable of choosing their own fates, Mr. Franzen has written his most deeply felt novel yet — a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times."
Sam Anderson, in a review for New York magazine, wrote "[T]he book would probably be insufferably dull if it weren’t for the fact that it also happens to be a work of total genius: a reminder both of why everyone got so excited about Franzen in the first place and of the undeniable magic—even today, in our digital end-times—of the old-timey literary novel...[however] Freedom is not, by any means, a perfect book...most obviously, there’s Franzen the crank—mighty detester of Twitter, ATVs, and housing developments—who occasionally steps in to overpower Franzen the artist. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s the author or his characters ranting about consumerism, the bloodlust of America’s domestic cats (they kill something like one billion songbirds a year), and the younger generation’s disturbing habit of wearing flip-flops...But if crankiness is the motor that powers Franzen’s art, I’m perfectly willing to sit through some speeches. My irritation with crabby manipulative Franzen is, after all, just a testament to the life of his characters, who are so real I desperately want him to leave them alone, and let them run free."
In Esquire, Benjamin Alsup wrote "The first thing people are going to want to know about Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom is if it measures up to Franzen's last novel, The Corrections. It measures up....The important thing is that The Corrections is a great novel. So is Freedom...Freedom doesn't name check War and Peace for nothing. It's making a claim for shelf space among the kind of books that the big dogs used to write. The kind they called important. The kind they called greats... Freedom reminds us just how much these things matter, reminds us that they matter more than Scotch and jeans and Jake Gyllenhaal. It lets us know that these things are worth thinking and fighting and maybe even reading about."
The Economist wrote "Mr Franzen’s work will not appeal to those seeking sharp-edged experimentalism in their fiction. But for readers who believe the novel to be an old-fashioned thing that, at its best, should bring alive fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative with a social context, his new book will be a huge draw. The author has spent the past ten years doing what he does well and making it better. “Freedom” has all its predecessor’s power and none of its faults...With its all-encompassing world, its flawed heroes and its redemptive ending, “Freedom” has the sweep of a modern “Paradise Lost."
Ron Charles of The Washington Post wrote "We've read this story before in The Corrections, back when it was witty, when its satire of contemporary family, business and politics sounded brash and fresh, when its revival of social realism was so boisterous that it ripped the hinges off the doors of American literature. The most anticipated, heralded novel of this year gives us a similarly toxic stew of domestic life, but Franzen's wit has mostly boiled away, leaving a bitter sludge of dysfunction...Love him or hate him — the critical extremism he inspires demands that everybody pick a side — you've got to admit he's an extraordinary stylist, America's best answer to Martin Amis. In dialogue that conveys each palpitation of the heart, every wince of the conscience, and especially in those elegantly extended phrases of narration, Franzen conveys his psychological acuity in a fugue of erudition, pathos and irony that is simply fantastic. But how many readers, even the long-suffering readers of literary fiction, will settle for linguistic brilliance as sufficient compensation for what is sometimes a misanthropic slog? What else does "Freedom" offer as it churns over the detritus of one middle-class family?"
Ruth Franklin, in a review for The New Republic, wrote "Instead of an epic, Franzen has created a soap opera. In his obsession with "Contract" versus "Status" — his plainly stated preference for the "good read" over the "work of art" — he has chosen to forget that the greatest novels must always be both, offering mental illumination and sensual satisfaction, profundity and pleasure. His slick and hollow work is premised on a despair of ever honoring all the aspirations."
Oprah Winfrey made Freedom her first book club selection of 2010, saying that "this book is a masterpiece." US President Barack Obama hailed the book as "terrific" after reading it over the summer.
- "An interview with Jonathan Franzen", October 30, 2002 interview on Charlie Rose Show
- "Good Neighbors", The New Yorker, June 2009
- Frantzen, Jonathan (May 31, 2010). "Agreeable". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
- Crouch, Ian (October 16, 2009). "Jonathan Franzen and David Bezmozgis Imagine Women". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
- Allard, Sam (November 3, 2009). "The Frantzen Interface". North by Northwestern. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
- Farrar, Straus and Giraux Catalogue - September to December 2010. Macmillan. 2010.
- Haslam, D. "Interviews". davehaslam.com. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
- "PW's Starred Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". Publishers Weekly. July 2, 2010. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
- Cheuse, A (August 5, 2010). "Book Review: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". National Public Radio. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
- Nazaryan, A (December 6, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen, 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' Book Club and the rise of the Frustrated White Male". NY Daily News.com. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
- Hallberg, Garth Risk (August 24, 2010). "Tough Love: A Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom". The Millions. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
- Kakutani, Michiko (August 15, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's ‘Freedom' Follows Family's Quest". The New York Times.
- Sam Anderson (August 12, 2010 accessdate=2010-09-18). "The Precisionist: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom illustrates, crankily, the joys of the old-timey literary novel". New York Magazine.
- Alsup, Benjamin (August 11, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen Will Go Down Swinging". Esquire. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
- "The stuff of life". The Economist. August 26, 2010.
- Charles, Ron (August 25, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom," reviewed by Ron Charles". The Washington Post.
- Franklin, Ruth (September 23, 2010). "Impact Man". The New Republic.
- Carolyn Kellogg (September 18, 2010). "Oprah's book club christens Franzen's Freedom". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-09-18.
- "Oprah's Book Club 2010 Selection". oprah.com. Retrieved 2010-09-18.
- "Vacationing Obama Buys Franzen Book "Freedom"". PolitiFi.com. August 20, 2010. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
- Publisher information from Farrar, Straus and Giroux about the novel.
- Excerpts from The New Yorker