Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Review: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)

Let me start this book review of Freedom:  A Novel by saying that I never read The Corrections. At the time it came out, with all the ridiculous hoopla over Franzen not wanting it chosen by Oprah for her book club, I abstained in protest.  I really was insulted.  I'm not a regular watcher of Oprah (who has the time?), but I am a HUGE fan of her book club!

From the start, I thought it was right up there with sliced bread for all-time great ideas.  Love or hate her, Oprah is a massive media force and for her to advocate for books was exactly the injection of mass visibility "reading" (and of course, the publishing industry) needed.  And she wasn't just recommending good books, she was urging vast numbers of viewers to really engage with those books.  They may not all have been classics of literature (though many were... and those that weren't were still interesting and enjoyable reading) and maybe it wasn't graduate level literary analysis, but she encouraged thoughtful and probing questions and often invited the author on her show for even greater visibility.  What more could a literature teacher ask from a media mogul?   I had a friend around that time who despite her incredibly busy schedule told me she was determined to finally sit down and read Anna Karenina over a summer with Oprah's book club.  How often do people make time for such things, post- college general ed requirements?  How often do they do it while simultaneously juggling kids, husband, job?

The recent "book club" phenomenon itself warms the coddles of my heart.  What a wonderful thing:  people taking time from their crazy, busy schedules to not only sit down and read a book, but to then gather with friends and new acquaintances to express their own thoughts about that experience, hear the thoughts of others and challenge each other to consider those views from different perspectives.  In a world of reality TV obsessions, video games and social media, this strikes me as a radical endeavor and cozy too.

The reality though is that Oprah's fans and those taking part in her massive "book club" are predominantly female.  And at it's heart, this is what I felt Franzen was objecting too.  He didn't want to be classified as having anything remotely to do with "chick lit."  Having now read Freedom, I find this incredibly ironic.  His subject matter for this book (and apparently for The Corrections as well), is in fact, modern family life and how it resonates in the modern world.  I'm certainly not saying this is an enthralling topic for all women, but certainly a majority of them find themselves intimately and daily entwined in that subject as not only participants, but leaders, creators, sustainers.  To say he was biting the hands that might feed him, well....  duh!

As you can see, this 10 year old insult of Franzen's still stings -- I'm bitter and I'd love to get him in a room and pour out all my arguments for why his stereotypical thinking on this issue is not only insultingly wrong headed from a feminist perspective, but mind-bogglingly stupid from a publishing perspective.  Apparently though, he has rethought his misogynistic ways -- or at least his publisher has told him in no uncertain terms that he was an idiot and he'd better "correct" things with the big O!  Franzen has returned to Oprah, hopefully crawling on his knees and begging to be considered once again and she has deigned to forgive.  So, far be it from me to question her mercy.  She has selected Freedom for her book club and as I support  all her book club endeavors I read it to display that support.

And I enjoyed it... I really did.  (Yes, the rant is over and the book review is finally underway J.)  I loved the way he drew his characters -- they were not only realistic, but fascinatingly so.  My favorite part of this is a technique he uses that's almost cinematic.  The first 30 pages or so give an overview (long shot) of the characters and outlines about 1/2 the basic plot, but from an outsider's "Here's what the Neighbors Thought" perspective.  The reader can't help drawing conclusions about the characters along with those neighbors.  So you start off feeling as though you "know" them, but then he back peddles and adds such intricate (close-up) depth to each one that not only do you no longer feel "judgmental" about those characters and their actions (as described in the first 30 pages), you actually become them in that way only a really good book elicits.

I loved the disconnect that gave me...  the realization that I'd judged on too little information, too quickly.  It was certainly an interesting commentary on our notion of "knowledge."  We get by on such snippets of information these days, (heck, we're flooded with them on FB/twitter) that this reminder of what gets left out, is eye opening.  If you think you know what your friends'/acquaintances' lives are really like, think again.  Social networking just gives individuals a chance to "paint" their own portrait, it certainly doesn't imply accuracy.

The characters themselves are unique portraits of modern "types," normally caricatured.  They range from an aspiring rock/alt star experiencing artistic neglect and success; an idealistic, environmentally protective organizer forced to work with the reality of the business world; a college aged boy trying to make his own way in a business environment that looks at human life only on a cost/profit basis; and even a basketball jock turned modern housewife with all the "Pottery Barn shopping," "out decorate/remodel the Joneses" competition that can entail, but deepening into a realistic look at love that strikes this reader as not only plausible, but heartbreakingly so.

And of course, he weaves his theme of freedom throughout:  the cost of freedom and the compromises it too often requires.  Because the lives of his characters span the last 30 years or so, he explores how they cope with the political events of those years and how those events intersect their own lives and interests.  In a world made "smaller" by globalization and more intimate by the internet, his book certainly asks us to question what it is we think we know (and "how" we know it).  It was most definitely worth the read.


  1. Hi,
    If only this post was one day earlier... before I went to my BC last night. I would have really pushed for it. I read The Corrections right after it came out and just before the O thing happened. Good thing or I probably wouldn't have read it. I don't recall much about it now, other than a pervasive sadness I felt while reading it. I remember at the time that it was considered by some to be a powerful look at contemporary social failures and personal loss. That seems fair, in retrospect. I do remember that the sadness came, in part, from characters making their damning judgments of others without ever really 'KNOWING' the whole story from another's perspective and, in some cases, willfully choosing NOT to. I forgot the details of the ending, but I don't have a remembrance of final CORRECTION. Even so, I thought it was well-written and glad I read it. I'm interested in this new one to see how FREEDOM works into it. Thanks for a wonderful, well-written and compelling review.

  2. Glad you liked the review Nancy. This would make a great book club choice! Lots to discuss. Maybe next time :)