Freedom (Franzen novel)

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First edition cover
AuthorJonathan Franzen
CountryUnited States
PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
August 31, 2010
Media typePrint (hardback)
LC ClassPS3556.R352
Preceded byThe Corrections 
Followed byPurity 

Freedom is a 2010 novel by American author Jonathan Franzen. It was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Freedom received general acclaim from book critics, was ranked one of the best books of 2010 by several publications,[1][2] and called by some critics the "Great American Novel".[3] In 2022, it was announced that Freedom would be adapted for television.[4]

The novel follows the lives of the Berglund family, particularly the parents Patty and Walter, as their lives develop and their happiness eventually falls apart. Important to their story is a college friend of Walter's and successful rock musician, Richard Katz, who has an affair with Patty. Walter and Patty's son, Joey, also goes through his own coming-of-age challenges.

Franzen began working on the novel in 2001, following his successful novel The Corrections. The title of the novel was an artifact of his book proposal, where he wanted to write a novel that freed him from the constraints of his previous work. The cover of many editions of the novel includes a cerulean warbler, a songbird, for which Walter works to create an environmental preserve.


Good Neighbors[edit]

The novel opens with a brief look at the Berglund family during their time living in St. Paul, Minnesota, from the perspective of their nosy neighbors. One of the first families to move back into urban St. Paul after years of white flight, the Berglunds are portrayed as an ideal liberal middle-class family. Walter Berglund is a mild-mannered environmentalist lawyer, his wife Patty is a charming and youthful homemaker who cares for their two children, Jessica and Joey. The precocious Joey’s move to his girlfriend’s Republican family next door increasingly destabilizes Patty and Walter’s marriage. Years later, while the children are at college, the unhappy couple relocates to Washington, D.C.

Mistakes Were Made[edit]

The second section of the novel is a story-within-a-story, presented as an autobiography written by Patty at her therapist's suggestion. She recalls her youth as a star basketball player, her alienation from her busy parents and artistic siblings, and being raped. After receiving a varsity scholarship to the University of Minnesota, her disturbed friend, Eliza, draws her into contact with the attractive Macalester rocker Richard Katz and his kind-hearted, nerdy roommate, Walter Berglund.

After detaching herself from Eliza and suffering a career-ending injury, Patty unsuccessfully attempts to woo Richard. Upon failing, she settles down with Walter, who has been patiently courting her for a year. They marry and raise their family, however, Patty cannot forget her physical attraction to Richard. Twenty years after leaving college, Patty has a brief affair with Richard at the Berglunds' vacation house at an unnamed lake in Minnesota.


The third section of the novel jumps to the early 2000s, and alternates in viewpoint among Richard, Joey, and Walter.

By 2004, a middle-aged Richard has finally found success as a minor indie rock star, with his breakthrough album Nameless Lake having been secretly inspired by his affair. Walter has started working for a coal-industry supported environmental organization, the Cerulean Mountain Trust, which aims to strip mine parts of West Virginia, eventually turning the denuded land into a cerulean warbler preserve. Walter attempts to enlist Richard in his anti-human overpopulation pet project, which he is funding with Cerulean Trust money. Richard notices that Walter’s assistant, Lalitha, is madly in love with Walter, and learns from Walter that his marriage with the depressed Patty is deteriorating.

After navigating many difficulties in establishing the warbler preserve, at the cost of his anti-Iraq War principles, the teetotaling Walter shares his first drink with Lalitha. He confesses his love for her and they kiss, but stop short of having sex. Now devoting himself to his newly named anti-overpopulation campaign, Free Space, Walter invites Richard to his home in Washington. Feigning interest in the campaign, Richard reaches out to Patty, imploring her to leave her husband and let Walter be happy. Patty refuses, and shows him the autobiography she wrote as therapy, attempting to convince him that she still loves Walter. After reading it, Richard leaves the manuscript on Walter’s desk. Walter finds the autobiography; enraged, he throws Patty out despite her pleas that she still loves him. She moves in with Richard, in Jersey City.

Meanwhile, the Berglunds’ estranged son, Joey, is at the University of Virginia. He blames his dissatisfaction there on the recent September 11 attacks. His attempts to break away from his childhood sweetheart, Connie, fail. However, at a Thanksgiving celebration with his wealthy roommate, Jonathan’s family in Northern Virginia, he is dazzled by his roommate’s beautiful sister, Jenna. Joey also becomes increasingly connected with Jonathan’s Zionist, neoconservative father, eventually getting a well-paid job with Kenny Bartles, an Iraq War-profiteering entrepreneur. Only after investing into Bartles’ lucrative DOD contract does Joey realize that Bartles intends to sell the Army obsolete trucks.

Connie struggles with depression in Joey’s absence. Upon reuniting with her, Joey impulsively elopes with Connie after she gives him her savings to invest in the subcontract. While on a trip to South America with Jenna, he has the opportunity to sleep with her, but he unexpectedly suffers impotence, realizing that Connie is his true love. His ensuing efforts to find truck parts in South America prove disastrous, and Bartles pressures Joey to ship defective truck parts to the Army. Feeling guilty, Joey speaks with his father about blowing the whistle; while he ultimately decides against it, his relationship with both parents improves.

With Patty gone, Walter and Lalitha become lovers. However, increasingly depressive after his separation from Patty, Walter loses his temper and rants against capitalism and overpopulation on live TV at the inauguration of the West Virginian body armor plant orchestrated by the Trust, making him an icon of the radical youth. Walter and Lalitha continue to organize Free Space without the Trust, which quickly devolves into a chaotic, radical echo-chamber. While on a road trip with Walter before the concert, Lalitha leaves early to manage the increasing destructiveness of the concert attendees, and is killed in a car crash.

Mistakes Were Made (Conclusion)[edit]

The penultimate section of the novel is a follow-up chapter to Patty's autobiography, written specifically for Walter. Patty reveals that she has not talked to Walter for six years. She lasted only several months living with Richard, aware of their long-term incompatibility.

Patty stays with college friends until her father is diagnosed with cancer. She travels home to reconnect with her family, and after her father’s death, settles fights about the inheritance. She settles down in Brooklyn, living alone and working as a teacher and coach at a private school. She relates that her children have both found professional success. Six years after she left Walter, Patty runs into Richard, who encourages her to get in touch with Walter, motivating her to write a concluding chapter to her autobiography.

Canterbridge Estates Lake[edit]

After Lalitha’s death, the severely depressed Walter retreats to his family’s lakeside house, where he turns into a misanthropic recluse, directing his anger especially at the inhabitants and bird-killing cats of Canterbridge Estates, a development that has sprouted on the other side of the lake. One day, Walter, who did not read the manuscript Patty sent him, finds her on the steps of the lakeside house. Despite his rage and confusion, he takes her back, and they slowly rekindle their relationship. Patty gains the admiration of Walter’s neighbors, but after one year of living together at the Lake, they move to Patty’s job, friends, and family in New York. According to Walter's wishes, the old lakeside house is turned into a fenced, cat-proof 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 iceberg 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.[5]

Franzen went on to suggest that a basic story outline was in place, and that his writing of the new novel was like a "guerrilla war" approaching different aspects of the novel (alluding to characters, dialogue, plot development, etc.).[5] 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.[5]

An excerpt entitled "Good Neighbors" appeared in the June 8 and 15, 2009, issues of The New Yorker.[6] The magazine published a second extract entitled "Agreeable" in the May 31, 2010, edition.[7]

On October 16, 2009, Franzen made an appearance alongside David Bezmozgis at the New Yorker Festival held in the Cedar Lake Theatre to read a portion of his forthcoming novel.[8][9] 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".[9] Franzen read "an extended clip from the second chapter".[9]

On March 12, 2010, details about the plot and content of Freedom were published in the Macmillan fall catalogue for 2010.[10]

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.[11]

Franzen has stated the writing of Freedom was deeply impacted by the death of his close friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace.[12]


Freedom received general acclaim from book critics, particularly for its writing and characterization. Shortly before the book's release, Time magazine featured Franzen on its cover, describing him as a "Great American Novelist", making him the first author to appear on its cover in a decade.[13]

Sam Tanenhaus of The New York Times and Benjamin Alsup of Esquire believed it measured up to Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections. Tanenhaus called it a "masterpiece of American fiction", writing that it "[told] an engrossing story" and "[illuminated], through the steady radiance of its author's profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew."[14] Alsup called it a great American novel.[3] In The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg argued that readers who enjoyed The Corrections would enjoy Freedom, writing that readers are "likely to come away from this novel moved in harder-to-fathom ways—and grateful for it."[15] An editor for Publishers Weekly wrote that it stood apart from most modern fiction because "Franzen tries to account for his often stridently unlikable characters and find where they (and we) went wrong, arriving at—incredibly—genuine hope."[16]

Benjamin Secher of The Telegraph called Franzen one of America's best living novelists, and Freedom the first great American novel of the "post-Obama era".[17] In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones called him "a literary genius" and wrote that Freedom stood on "a different plane from other contemporary fiction".[18]

Michiko Kakutani called the book "galvanic" and wrote that it showcased Franzen's talent as a storyteller and "his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life." Kakutani also praised the novel's characterization, going on to call it a "compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times."[19] The Economist stated that the novel contained "fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative" and had "all its predecessor's power and none of its faults."[20]

Not all reviews were raving. Most lukewarm reviews praised the novel's prose, but believed the author's left-wing political stance was too obvious. Sam Anderson, in a review for New York magazine, thought the characterization was strong, but perceived the politics as sometimes too heavy-handed: "Franzen the crank—mighty detester of Twitter, ATVs, and housing developments" occasionally "overpower[s] Franzen the artist ... but if crankiness is the motor that powers Franzen's art, I'm perfectly willing to sit through some speeches."[21] Ron Charles of The Washington Post remarked that it lacked the wit and "[freshness]" of The Corrections. Charles praised Franzen's prose and called him "an extraordinary stylist", but questioned how many readers would settle for good writing as "sufficient compensation for what is sometimes a misanthropic slog."[22] Ruth Franklin of The New Republic believed the novel resembled a "soap opera" more than it did an epic, and that Franzen had forgotten "the greatest novels must ... offer ... profundity and pleasure."[23]

Alexander Nazaryan criticized its familiarity in the New York Daily News remarking that the author "can write about a gentrifying family in St. Paul. Or maybe in St. Louis. But that's about it." Nazaryan also didn't believe Franzen was joking when he suggested "being doomed as a novelist never to do anything but stories of Midwestern families."[24] Alan Cheuse of National Public Radio found the novel "[brilliant]" but not enjoyable, suggesting that "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."[25] In a scathing review for The Atlantic, Brian Reynolds Myers called the book "juvenile" and "directionless", and filled with "mediocrities".[26]

Ross Douthat of First Things praised the "stretches of Freedom that read like a master class in how to write sympathetically about the kind of characters" with an abundance of freedom. Yet, Douthat concluded the novel was overlong, feeling the "impression that Franzen's talents are being wasted on his characters."[27]

Awards and endorsements[edit]

Freedom won the John Gardner Fiction Award. Additionally, it was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The American Library Association also named it a notable fiction of the 2010 publishing year.

Oprah Winfrey made Freedom her first book club selection of 2010, saying, "this book is a masterpiece."[28][29] US President Barack Obama called it "terrific" after reading it over the summer.[30]


In July 2022, it was announced that Tomorrow Studios and Scott Free Productions would adapt Freedom as a television series. The script will be written by Melanie Marnich, which Franzen said was a "perfect choice."[4] Franzen, Marnich, and Ridley Scott will serve as executive producers for the series.


  1. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2010". The New York Times. December 2010. Retrieved November 11, 2015.
  2. ^ Various (November 14, 2010). "Best books of the year: 2010 | feature". The Guardian. Retrieved August 18, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Alsup, Benjamin (August 11, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen Will Go Down Swinging". Esquire. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Schaub, Michael (July 14, 2022). "Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' To Be Adapted for TV". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved July 16, 2022.
  5. ^ a b c "An interview with Jonathan Franzen" Archived March 13, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, October 30, 2002, interview on Charlie Rose Show
  6. ^ "Good Neighbors", The New Yorker, June 2009.
  7. ^ Frantzen, Jonathan (May 31, 2010). "Agreeable". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  8. ^ Crouch, Ian (October 16, 2009). "Jonathan Franzen and David Bezmozgis Imagine Women". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  9. ^ a b c Allard, Sam (November 3, 2009). "The Frantzen Interface". North by Northwestern. Archived from the original on July 14, 2011. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  10. ^ Farrar, Straus and Giraux Catalogue - September to December 2010 (PDF). Macmillan. 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 24, 2012.
  11. ^ Haslam, D. "Interviews". Archived from the original on July 20, 2011. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  12. ^ Franzen, Jonathan (October 2, 2015). "Jonathan Franzen: 'Modern life has become extremely distracting'". The Guardian.
  13. ^ "Great American Novelist". Time. August 23, 2010.
  14. ^ Book review Sam Tanenhaus, The New York Times, August 29, 2010
  15. ^ Hallberg, Garth Risk (August 24, 2010). "Tough Love: A Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". The Millions. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  16. ^ "PW's Starred Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". Publishers Weekly. July 2, 2010. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  17. ^ Secher, Benjamin (August 20, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen: One of America's Greatest Living Novelists". The Telegraph. Retrieved August 21, 2014.
  18. ^ Jones, Jonathan (August 20, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: the novel of the century". The Telegraph. Retrieved August 22, 2014.
  19. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (August 15, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's Freedom Follows Family's Quest". The New York Times.
  20. ^ "The stuff of life". The Economist. August 26, 2010.
  21. ^ Anderson, Sam (August 12, 2010). "The Precisionist: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom illustrates, crankily, the joys of the old-timey literary novel". New York. Retrieved August 18, 2010.
  22. ^ Charles, Ron (August 25, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom," reviewed by Ron Charles". The Washington Post.
  23. ^ Franklin, Ruth (September 23, 2010). "Impact Man". The New Republic.
  24. ^ Nazaryan, A (December 6, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen, 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' Book Club and the rise of the Frustrated White Male". New York Daily News. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  25. ^ Cheuse, A (August 5, 2010). "Book Review: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". National Public Radio. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  26. ^ Smaller Than Life B. R. Myers, The Atlantic, October 2010 Archived January 1, 2011, at the Wayback Machine (Retrieved October 15, 2011).
  27. ^ Douthat, Ross (November 2010). "The Girl with the Franzen Tattoo: A review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen". First Things. Archived from the original on December 24, 2013. Retrieved December 21, 2013.
  28. ^ Kellogg, Carolyn (September 18, 2010). "Oprah's book club christens Franzen's Freedom". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on September 5, 2012. Retrieved September 18, 2010.
  29. ^ "Oprah's Book Club 2010 Selection". Retrieved September 18, 2010.
  30. ^ "Vacationing Obama Buys Franzen Book 'Freedom'". August 20, 2010. Retrieved March 19, 2011.

Further reading[edit]

In-depth studies and reviews[edit]

  • Bresnan, Mark. "Consistently Original, Perennially Unheard Of: Punk, Margin and Mainstream in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". Write in Tune: Contemporary Music in Fiction. London: Bloomsbury (2014), 31–42.
  • Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Benjamin Kunkel, Marco Roth. "Four Responses to Freedom". n + 1 10 (2010).
  • Gram, Margaret Hunt. "Freedom's Limits: Jonathan Franzen, the Realist Novel, and the Problem of Growth". American Literary History. 26:2 (2014), 295–316.
  • Irr, Caren. "Postmodernism in Reverse: American National Allegories and the 21st-Century Political Novel". Twentieth Century Literature. 57:3-4 (2011), 516–538.

External links[edit]