Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul – the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbour who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter′s dreams. Together with Walter – environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man – she was doing her small part to build a better world. But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz – outré rocker and Walter′s college best friend and rival – still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become ′a very different kind of neighbour′ – an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street′s attentive eyes?

Genre: Fiction, American
Year: 2010
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Rating: 3/5

Freedom follows the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, and their disintegrating marriage. This novel is presented in different sections. We begin with an overview of the Berglund family from the point-of-view of their nosy Barrier Street neighbours. Seemingly the perfect couple, perfect family and perfect neighbours... but no one's lives are ever like they seem on the surface.

This is followed by the autobiography of Patty (surprisingly written in third person) where she documents her upbringing and her teenage years. She talks about her time at college, her rise to greatness and then disappointing decline as a basketball player. Her college relationships, including those with Eliza, her strange and clingy friend; Richard, the sexy yet aloof musician who Patty is in love with; and Walter, Richard's best-friend and geeky roommate, a man who is timid, caring and nice. Everything Richard is not.

This novel examines Patty and Walter's lives after college as they create their family and Patty tries to adjust to being a mother and housewife, and as Walter builds his career, which takes an unexpected turn. 

Finally, as Patty and Walter's marriage comes to a climatic end, we explore the lives of their two children, Jessica and Joey, and how the choices parents make can impact on their children in different ways. 

I found this novel slow going. That is not to say it was bad, or that I didn't like it, just that it was slow. I think my main problem is that I found it difficult to connect with the characters and try as I might, it just never happened. 

The characters in this novel are wealthy, healthy and intelligent. They have the whole world it their fingertips, and yet they continue to make bad choices and then cry when their lives are tough..... they get depressed because their lives lack meaning, yet they have created this fake little 'perfect' world for themselves to live in, then can't hack the emptiness in their lives.

I think the feelings of the characters was summed up nicely in one part of this book, when they are discussing music and a song by the Dave Matthews Band, "the banality of the lyrics, 'Gotta be free, so free, yeah, yeah, yeah. Can't live without my freedom, yeah, yeah." This is exactly how the characters view their lives... being free is banal, uninspiring and depressing.

I have no patience for people who 'have it all' and it still isn't enough. We live in such a materialistic world. No one is EVER happy with the life they have been dealt. So what? That is life. Suck it up and get some perspective! 

So maybe I am a little harsh. Considering this book is examining contemporary, middle class America, it has done an excellent job. Maybe I wasn't 'supposed' to like the characters... who knows. I just found them all (except poor Walter) to be so selfish, self-absorbed and arrogant. If that was Franzen's goal then he succeeded. 

Patty just annoyed me. What sort of person marries the best friend of the man she is in love with, then whinges about her life not being how she wanted? Not a very nice one, I can tell you. This novel examines the consequences of the choices we make when we are young, and how they effect our whole lives in ways we never planned. And it does a great job of painting a picture of middle aged regret.... But I just didn't connect with that. 

I honestly think I am not old enough to appreciate this novel. I am in my late twenties. I am still beginning my career, planning my marriage to my partner and looking forward to all life has to bring. I am excited about my future! Maybe if I were 20 years older and wishing I'd done things differently, then I would 'get' this novel. 

There were a few redeeming characters in this novel. Like Richard Katz. Sure, he was as selfish as Patty, but he never tried to hide it or be anything different. From the outset, Richard made it clear that he was an arsehole, and happily followed through. I admire that kind of honesty in a person. 

There was also Walter... poor, misguided, in love with a woman who doesn't love him the same way, Walter. He was so nice, always willing to help those in need and put others before himself. he really didn't fit in with those around him, and he suffered for that. You can only pity people like him. 

As for their children, Jessica and Joey... like mother like son. Jessica was the only one who turned out to not only have strong moral beliefs, but a backbone. Good for her. 

The theme of 'freedom' ran throughout this whole novel, in many different ways. Franzen examined national freedom, personal freedom and liberties. 

Overall, I wish I liked this novel more. I wish I connected with the characters and wanted to read about them. Instead, I found myself hurrying through the last pages of the novel so I could read something else. That is always disappointing. 

You may like this novel if you are around the same age as the main characters, as I said, I think I am too young to appreciate it's sentiment. I just hope that I don't end up like them.... 

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