Freedom by Jonathan Franzen has been on my TBR pile for a long time, in fact, I bought it on November 2010. But both the size, its popularity and the excerpts I had read made me see it as a complex reading, needing all my time and attention. The book did not make it to my reading list last summer and I am partly glad it did not. My experience with this book was definitely an intense one.
From Book Depository:
In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. FREEDOM comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of FREEDOM‘s intensely realized characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.
What first attracted me to the book was the cover. Only those who have read the book know the meaning of the whole picture but, for me, it was the tackiest cover I had ever seen, so much so that I wondered why they had chosen it. Then, everyone in the United States seemed to have reading it and, loving contemporary literature as I do, it just felt right for me to buy it. Then, as I said, the book rested on my TBR pile for almost two years and I am happy it did. It was a kind of cathartic experience, a summary and a challenge of everything I thought I had learned during my five days in college and as a “grown-up” if we ever reach that state.
Since the Book Depository does not even hint the plot of the novel, I would say it is the story of the Berglunds: Patty and Walter, college sweet-hearts, married and moved to the suburbs, had two children and are the envy of the neighborhood. During the first part of the book I could not but think of Bree Van de Kamp, from Desperate Housewives, and how her real life, hidden by her smile and her perfect image, was actually a disaster. And I was right. Freedom explores the pros and cons of modern life, of the freedoms we are granted. But the question that remains all throughout the novel is whether we are really given that freedom or if we are just slaved by new doctrines. For example, feminism is said to grant women freedom, the freedom to choose, but reality is actually different: many feminist believe that women have to get a job and be independent. But what if they want to be housewives and mothers? Aren’t we supposed to enjoy the freedom to be the kind of women we want to? This not only applies to Patty but to Walter himself too, who completely dismisses oral sex because it (he says) subjects the woman and “slaves” her. Is that what feminism was about or just a modern interpretation of it? Aren’t we being subjected too, but by rules hidden under a label of freedom?
Franzen explores these controversial issues regarding freedom through a group of complex, very real characters. I found them so real that there were times, late at night, when their fate and their actions made me sick, uneasy and left me unable to sleep even until four in the morning. Also, I found myself addicted to the novel, reading more than a hundred pages a day, completely focused on it and ignoring other everyday pleasures of mine like TV and blogging. I also felt I had to keep up with the characters and stay with them, not reading any other book at the same time. I wanted to know what was going on with the Berglunds as if I were one of them or even their gossiping neighbor.
Walter and Patty do stand for a generation of new Americans, worried by the environment and feminism, but their children, born in the 1990’s also stand up for a new generation: that of Republican college kids coming from middle-class houses. A generation being offered opportunities no one ever had… a spoilt generation to whom their parents gave everything they had. Sadly, I do feel part of this spoilt generation who takes the rewards’ of our parents’ work for granted, as we had a right to be so lucky.
I would definitely recommend Freedom to anyone who likes contemporary literature or simply, anyone worried by the current state of affairs and human psychology. The generation gap between parents and children is nowadays greater than ever and Franzen explores why. It is definitely a complex and intense reading that will affect the reader thanks to the universality of the Berglunds’ and their friends’ problems, but also because they are the problems of anyone at the beginning of the 21st century. Now I look forward to reading The Corrections as soon as possible!