Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book 220: Freedom



"This wasn't the person he'd thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he'd been free to chose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones."

Dates read: March 30- April 3, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition), The New York Times bestseller

Something that seems to come up fairly frequently in profiles of successful people is that they have a daily uniform. Like Steve Jobs' constant black turtleneck and jeans, many of them report that not having to think about what they're going to wear every day frees up their minds for "more important" things. It's a concept called decision fatigue...the more decisions you have to make, the worse (over time) you get at making them logically. For me, deciding what to wear is enjoyable, but I do eat almost the exact same thing every day because food isn't that interesting to me. Cutting unnecessary choices out of your life does make things a lot simpler.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom isn't very subtle: he tells you the major theme of the book right there in the title. It's the story of a family, headed by Walter and Patty Berglund, and how it comes to be and how (of course) it begins to fray. It begins with a short, third-party history of their residence in a newly-gentrifying neighborhood in Saint Paul, which begins when they're young, energetic newlyweds, and continues through their raising of two children, Jennifer and Joey, the latter of whom causes quite a bit of grapevine drama when he takes sides against his own family in a growing border war with their neighbors. Just about as soon as the kids are out of high school and off to college, the parental Berglunds pick up and leave suddenly, and several years later in the newspaper their former neighbors read that Walter's gotten into a bit of a professional dust-up. So right from the beginning, we know that something is rotten in the state of Minnesota.

We then go back and time and get Patty's life story, in which she always feels like an outsider in her ambitious upstate New York family, culminating in her parents' refusal to do anything when she's raped by the son of a powerful neighbor. She flees on an athletic scholarship to Minnesota, where she develops a friendship with a disturbed classmate, through whom she meets musician Richard Katz and his roommate, Walter Berglund. Though Richard and Patty are interested in each other, Walter is also interested in Patty, and though he "gets" the girl, the attraction between his wife and his best friend lingers. We also move forward to Richard, Walter, and Joey's perspectives after their move out of Minnesota, and how each struggles with freedom as opposed to stablility, and the consequences of exercising choices that become available.

Jonathan Franzen as a human being is not my favorite. But as a writer, he is undeniably talented. Freedom wrestles with some weighty stuff: 9/11, environmentalism, corporate philanthropy, temptation, infidelity, the way family patterns repeat over generations, sexual assault, selling out, forgiveness. That's a lot for one book, even a long-ish one, to tackle. But for the most part, he pulls it off. Though I didn't necessarily always like the characters he created, I almost always found them compelling and interesting. Though some of the plot schemes he tangles them up veer towards the ridiculous, he mines them for emotional truth well enough that they stay on the good side of the line of believability.

There are some missteps, though. I found some of his decisions regarding Patty's trajectory baffling. Her rape doesn't seem like a character-informing experience for her, serving rather as an explanation to write her parents out of the book until there can be a rapprochement at the end to bring things full circle. And her college friend Eliza's obsession with her also seemed underbaked...it never really went anywhere besides serving as her introduction to Richard. The balance of Patty's story rounded her out, but the way he wrote Connie (Joey's childhood sweetheart) never made sense to me. She's not a person, she's a symbol, as was Lalitha, a young colleague of Walter's who becomes besotted with him. Maybe our cultural moment just has me primed to see underlying misogyny better than I used to, but I can't deny that it's here and it was part of what kept me from being fully absorbed in the novel. It's good, very good even, and I would recommend it with the caveat that if you're looking for strong female characters, you won't find them here.

One year ago, I was reading: Forest Dark (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Three years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Four years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

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