‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen

‘Freedom’ is a dense, lengthy read, one of those books that tests the strength of your arms; some sections, where my attention wandered away a little, I did question whether it was worth it, but at the end I’m glad I persevered.

It’s a meandering story focussing on the various members of the Berglund family as they grow, stay together, move apart, betray and support each other.  Told from various points of view, including that of Richard, the ‘third person’ in Patty and Walter’s marriage, it builds, layer by layer a portrait of a particular America, in which each must discover the limits of their own freedom.

Initially viewed from the outside by their neighbours in a now gentrified part of Minneapolis, as an ideal couple, just as they are moving away after 20 years, the Berglunds are on the verge of disintegration; devoted parents, they are nonetheless shunned by their son Joey, who has moved in with the family of his girlfriend next door.  A devoted conservationist, Walter throws in his lot with a big coal mining concern in misguided efforts to save a particular bird species.  Patty, the least favoured of her siblings by their parents as a child, turns out to be ultimately the most competent and balanced mainly it seems because she was ignored rather than indulged in adolescence and early adulthood.

Every which way there are contradictions and compromises to be made; there are limits to freedom of choice in a country taught to believe that any citizen can achieve whatever they want through hard work and investment in the right kind of house.

Property, its improvement, extension and its location, is a recurrent theme throughout: the Berglunds are in the forefront of city gentrification, then move to a town house in DC which they share with the offices of the conservation organisation for which Walter works; the house by the lake has a symbolic power as the place where both Patty and Walter escape at different times, it’s also the place of inspiration for Richard’s most successful songs, and the last fortress from which Walter conducts his ultimate fight against the urban creep from the nasty ‘executive homes’ built across the lake ruining his view and housing the domestic cats which are killing the native birds.  Joey stays in squalid apartments in New York city, and has to deal with cats too, and blocked drains.

The novel is interesting stylistically as the interwoven sections are written from various points of view, but with no attempt to alter the tone between the different character’s view – one authorial voice is heard throughout, even in the sections which were ostensibly Patty’s autobiography written at the behest of her therapist.  One of the consequences of this for me was that I never felt that Patty was a fully realised character; the internal and external descriptions of her, while written in exactly the same authorial register were, paradoxically, utterly unrelated to each other, in a way that made her less, rather than more, interesting and credible.

A number of the reviews I have read have mentioned how funny it is.  All I can say to that is, no it’s not.

I’m glad I read the book all the way to the end, and at some moments that was far from a certainty, but I’m not sure how much of it I will retain.

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