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, and was ranked one of the best books of 2010 by several publications,[1][2] and has been described as a "Great American Novel".

The novel follows the lives of the Berglund family, particularly the parents Patty and Walter, as their lives develop and then their happiness falls apart. Important to their story is a college friend of Walter's and successful rock musician, Richard Katz, who has a love 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.


Freedom follows several members of an American family, the Berglunds, and their close friends and lovers, from the last decades of the twentieth century up until the early years of the Obama administration. The novel "chronicles the struggling marriage of Walter and Patty, a Mid-Western, middle-class couple, interlaced with painfully accurate observations on the travails of family life – incompatible siblings, unruly offspring, inadequate parents and, in its bleakest moments, the slow collective march towards death."[3]

Good Neighbors[edit]

Freedom opens with a short history of the Berglund family during their time living in St. Paul, Minnesota, from the perspective of their nosy neighbors. The Berglunds are portrayed as an ideal liberal and middle-class family, and they are among the first families to move into urban St. Paul after years of white flight to the suburbs. Patty Berglund is a charming and youthful homemaker with a self-deprecating sense of humor; her husband Walter is a mild-mannered but principled lawyer with environmentalist advocacies.

They have one daughter, Jessica, and one son, Joey, the latter exhibiting a precocious independence and talent for making money. Joey becomes sexually involved with a neighborhood teen named Connie Monaghan and begins to rebel against his mother, going so far as to move in with Connie and her family, making Patty and Walter increasingly unstable. After many unhappy years, and after both Joey and Jessica have gone off to college, Patty and Walter relocate to Washington, D.C., abandoning the neighborhood and house they have worked so hard to improve.

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 Democrat parents and artistically-inclined siblings, and her being date-raped. Instead of attending an East Coast elite college like her siblings, she obtains a varsity scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where she continues her successful basketball career. Through her best friend at the time, a possessive and disturbed girl named Eliza, she meets an attractive indie rock musician named Richard Katz, and his nerdy but kind roommate, Walter Berglund.

After suffering a career-ending knee injury, Patty longs for affection; failing to woo Richard, she settles down with Walter, who has been patiently courting her for more than a year. Patty reveals that although she does love Walter, it was Richard who has always attracted her physically, and she secretly retained this desire even through two decades of raising a family with Walter. She eventually betrays Walter in a brief affair with Richard, during a stay at the Berglunds' vacation house located next to an unnamed lake in Minnesota. She learns that Richard denied her advances decades earlier out of respect for his best friend Walter.


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

By 2004, Richard, in middle-age, has finally found success as a minor indie rock star. His breakthrough album Nameless Lake was secretly inspired by his affair with Patty at the lakeside cabin. Richard is uncomfortable with commercial success, and he burns through his new-found money. Walter, who has been working in Washington, D.C., for an unorthodox environmental organization called the Cerulean Mountain Trust, calls him to enlist his help for a personal project. The Trust is funded by a coal mining magnate who wants to strip mine a section of West Virginia territory before turning it into a preserve for the cerulean warbler, a songbird. Walter hopes to use some of the Trust's funding for his pet project, a campaign against human overpopulation, the common factor behind all his environmental concerns. Believing that Richard's rock star reputation could greatly help the campaign, Walter meets up with him, and Richard is introduced to Walter's beautiful young assistant, Lalitha. Richard notices that Lalitha appears to be deeply in love with Walter, and also learns from Walter that his marriage with Patty, who has been suffering from depression, is deteriorating.

Walter and Lalitha successfully complete the deals required to set up the future warbler preserve. The biggest challenge they faced was the relocation of redneck families living in the territory, which was overcome when the Trust's sponsor convinced a corporation named LBI to build a new factory in West Virginia. The factory will employ many of the displaced families in the manufacture of body armor for the Iraq War. To celebrate, Lalitha convinces Walter to drink beer, breaking his lifelong teetotalism. Inebriated, Walter inadvertently declares his love for Lalitha, and they kiss, but stop short of making love.

Richard visits the Berglunds' home in Washington, D.C., ostensibly to help in Walter's planning for the anti-overpopulation campaign, which they call Free Space. Richard tries to convince Patty to leave her husband, but she shows Richard the autobiography she wrote as therapy (‘Mistakes Were Made’), trying to convince him that she still loves Walter. After reading it, Richard recognizes that Patty has always been meant for Walter, but he deliberately leaves the manuscript on Walter's desk, and Walter finds the document, which was never meant for him to see. Enraged, he throws out Patty despite her claims that her affair with Richard is done and it is Walter whom she truly loves. Richard returns to Jersey City where, a few days later, he finds Patty on his apartment doorsteps.

Meanwhile, the Berglunds' estranged son, Joey, now studies at the University of Virginia. He initially finds his new life unsatisfactory compared to his younger years in Minnesota; he blames the September 11 attacks and its effects on the people around him. His attempts to break away from his childhood sweetheart Connie fails when he finds himself seeking their intimacy. Joey spends a Thanksgiving at his roommate Jonathan's family in the D.C. suburbs, where he meets Jonathan's exceptionally beautiful but mischievous sister Jenna, and is exposed to their father's Zionist politics. Joey, who is of partly Jewish heritage through his mother's family, impresses Jonathan's father. Joey's increasing involvement with the neoconservatives further estranges him from his liberal father.

Joey meets Kenny Bartles, an entrepreneur determined to profit from the ongoing Iraq War. Kenny is subcontracted by LBI for a highly lucrative Department of Defense project, to procure supply trucks to serve in the frontlines. Kenny has dubiously chosen an obsolete truck model for the deal, and he convinces Joey to partner with him, tasking Joey with finding spare parts for the old trucks. The undertaking, however, requires Joey to invest a large amount up-front.

Connie suffers from depression, partly as a result of Joey's distant treatment of her, despite her intense affection for him. When Joey realizes Connie's college funds could provide him the investment money he needs for his deal with Kenny, he warms up again to her. He impulsively marries her after she unhesitatingly gives the money to him, although he keeps the wedding secret from everyone, especially his parents. Despite having married Connie, Joey continues to flirt with Jenna. He eventually gets a chance to sleep with her, but during the act he unexpectedly suffers impotence. He realizes how much he truly loves Connie, and he admits to Jenna about being married, then leaves her alone, focusing on completing his deal with Kenny.

Joey finds nothing but defective spare parts for the subcontract, but Kenny and an LBI vice president nevertheless pressure him to ship the parts to Iraq, telling him it will not be his problem. He earns $850,000 for the completion of the deal, but he is struck with extreme guilt. He faces a dilemma on whether to blow the whistle on the dubious deal or just keep silent, and he realizes he could reliably consult no one but his father. Joey's display of conscience makes Walter proud, and they finally overcome their many years of bitterness, although Walter is unable to advise Joey because of his own involvement with LBI. Joey eventually tells both his parents about having married Connie, who is now happily living with him.

Walter and Lalitha become lovers after Patty leaves. At the inauguration of the new West Virginia LBI factory, Walter loses his temper and makes an angry speech on live television, declaring his contempt for the displaced families and the Trust's corporate backers. As a result, the Trust fires him and Lalitha. However, the TV debacle makes him a viral video hero for radical youth from across the nation. Despite losing the Trust's funding, volunteer applications for his Free Space campaign pour in. Joey, who has decided not to blow the whistle on the government contract but just give away the money to charity, donates a large sum to the cause.

Walter and Lalitha go on a romantic road trip, visiting camping grounds across the nation, before the Free Space campaign begins in the summer. The first events of the campaign are only mildly successful; without Richard's help in enlisting big-name acts, the concerts are unable to attract youth who aren't already radical. Days before the final event, on the hills of West Virginia, Lalitha is killed in a car accident.

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.

She stayed for a few months afterwards with her college basketball friends, until her father was suddenly diagnosed with cancer, and she spent time with him in his final days. After her father died, the family quarreled over his estate; she visited each of her siblings to negotiate a compromise. The experience redeemed her relationship with her family. She went to live alone in Brooklyn and worked at a private school, where she found a passion for teaching and coaching young children. She relates that Joey has been successful in a new sustainable coffee business, while Jessica has focused on a career in publishing, and that Patty's separation from Walter has caused the siblings to become closer to each other despite their differences.

Six years after she left Walter, Patty runs into Richard, who is now comfortable with his success. Richard convinces Patty to get in touch with Walter, saying she's good at telling stories, and this motivates her to write a concluding chapter to her autobiography.

Canterbridge Estates Lake[edit]

Walter, after Lalitha's death, retreats to his family's lakeside house in Minnesota. The previously unnamed lake is now called the Canterbridge Estates Lake, after a new residential development is built across the water from Walter's house. His new neighbors see him as a cranky recluse, obsessed with preventing their house cats from killing birds nesting on his property. 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 eventually takes her back. Patty quickly earns the admiration of Walter's neighbors, although after less than a year, she moves out with Walter so that she could return to her job in New York, where most of her family and their friends also live. 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.[4]

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.).[4] 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.[4]

An excerpt entitled "Good Neighbors" appeared in the June 8 and June 15, 2009 issues of The New Yorker.[5] The magazine published a second extract entitled "Agreeable" in the May 31, 2010 edition.[6]

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.[7][8] 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."[8] Franzen read "an extended clip from the second chapter."[8]

On March 12, 2010, details about the plot and content of Freedom were published in the Macmillan fall catalogue for 2010.[9]

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.[10]

Franzen has stated the writing of Freedom was deeply impacted by the death of his close friend and fellow novelist David Foster Wallace.[11]


Freedom received general acclaim from book critics, particularly for its writing and characterization. Shortly after 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 the front cover in a decade.

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."[12] Alsup called it a great American novel.[13] In The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg argued that readers who enjoyed The Corrections would enjoy Freedom." He also wrote that they're "likely to come away from this novel moved in harder-to-fathom ways—and grateful for it."[14] 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."[15]

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."[16] In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones called him "a literary genius" and wrote that Freedom stood on "a different plane from other contemporary fiction."[17]

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."[18] The Economist wrote that the novel contained "fully imagined characters in a powerful narrative." The reviewer went on to say that it had "all its predecessor's power and none of its faults."[19]

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."[20] Ron Charles of The Washington Post also felt less favorably, remarking 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."[21] In addition, 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."[22]

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."[23] 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."[24]

In a scathing review, Brian Reynolds Myers called the book "juvenile" and "directionless", and filled with "mediocrities".[25]

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."[26]

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."[27][28] US President Barack Obama called it "terrific" after reading it over the summer.[29]


  1. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2010". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 November 2015.
  2. ^ Various (2010-11-14). "Best books of the year: 2010 | feature". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-08-18.
  3. ^ Bertodano, Helena de (2010-09-29). "Jonathan Franzen interview". ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2018-08-18.
  4. ^ a b c "An interview with Jonathan Franzen" Archived 2010-03-13 at the Wayback Machine, October 30, 2002 interview on Charlie Rose Show
  5. ^ "Good Neighbors", The New Yorker, June 2009
  6. ^ Frantzen, Jonathan (May 31, 2010). "Agreeable". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  7. ^ Crouch, Ian (October 16, 2009). "Jonathan Franzen and David Bezmozgis Imagine Women". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c Allard, Sam (November 3, 2009). "The Frantzen Interface". North by Northwestern. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  9. ^ Farrar, Straus and Giraux Catalogue - September to December 2010 (PDF). Macmillan. 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-02-24.
  10. ^ Haslam, D. "Interviews". Archived from the original on July 20, 2011. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  11. ^ Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Franzen: ‘Modern life has become extremely distracting’, The Guardian, 2 October 2015.
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ Alsup, Benjamin (August 11, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen Will Go Down Swinging". Esquire. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  14. ^ Hallberg, Garth Risk (August 24, 2010). "Tough Love: A Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". The Millions. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  15. ^ "PW's Starred Review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". Publishers Weekly. July 2, 2010. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  16. ^ Secher, Benjamin (August 20, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen: One of America's Greatest Living Novelists". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved August 21, 2014.
  17. ^ Jones, Jonathan (August 20, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: the novel of the century". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved August 22, 2014.
  18. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (August 15, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom' Follows Family's Quest". The New York Times.
  19. ^ "The stuff of life". The Economist. August 26, 2010.
  20. ^ Sam Anderson (August 12, 2010). "The Precisionist: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom illustrates, crankily, the joys of the old-timey literary novel". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2010-09-18.
  21. ^ Charles, Ron (August 25, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom," reviewed by Ron Charles". The Washington Post.
  22. ^ Franklin, Ruth (September 23, 2010). "Impact Man". The New Republic.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Cheuse, A (August 5, 2010). "Book Review: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom". National Public Radio. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  25. ^ B. R. Myers. “Smaller Than Life Atlantic. October 2010 Archived January 1, 2011, at the Wayback Machine (Accessed October 15, 2011)
  26. ^ Douthat, Ross (November 2010). "The Girl with the Franzen Tattoo: A review of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen". First Things.
  27. ^ Carolyn Kellogg (September 18, 2010). "Oprah's book club christens Franzen's Freedom". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-09-18.
  28. ^ "Oprah's Book Club 2010 Selection". Retrieved 2010-09-18.
  29. ^ "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]