Thursday, February 9, 2012


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, copyright 2010
Hardcover, 576 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374158460


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 neighbor, 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—outr√© 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 neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?

My Thoughts:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen examines the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund. After meeting at college in the '70s, Walter and Patty settle in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Patty is a stay-at-home mom while Walter is a socially conscious environmental lawyer.  In the opening chapter "Good Neighbors" we learn right from the start that the Berglund's life is currently not as idyllic as it seems it once was and that there are some major problems. In the rest of the novel Franzen chronicles the details of Walter and Patty's lives, together and separately, as well as the lives of their children and Walter's best friend from college. 

Freedom consists of several intricate narratives. Clearly freedom exists in many forms and the questions that can arise when we assert our personal liberties are a multifaceted theme in the novel. The novel also spans many years, the current events happening during those years, and several locations. Franzen character development is brilliant. Depending upon the point of view and perspective, the actions, motives and thoughts of each character can be interpreted differently, favorably or not, which gives the characters the depth found in real life. They can all be self absorbed and unlikable, but their motives aren't always as clearly defined and delineated. And no matter how hard you try, sometimes things do fall apart because everyone is an individual making their own choices. 

Obviously much has been written about Freedom, which was an anxiously anticipated novel, so I'm not sure how much more my thoughts can add to the discussion. I could point out that I too was anxiously awaiting it's publication - until it became an Oprah book at which point I decided to wait and read it later. This is a prejudice that I freely admit to. I'm pleased I have finally read it and am surprised at the relatively low ratings it has received because I thought it was a wonderfully satisfying novel. Yes, the characters can be unsympathetic, but they were richly developed. Ultimately, through the lives of its characters, Freedom captured an underlying insight into our times. 

Very Highly Recommended


The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds. opening

There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn’t sit well—who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning. pg. 5

...[after] the sudden death and funeral of Mrs. Berglund, that Patty became a very different kind of neighbor, a much more sarcastic neighbor.
“Oh, Connie, yes,” her tune went now, “such a nice little girl, such a quiet little harmless girl, with such a sterling mom. You know, I hear Carol has a new boyfriend, a real studly man, he’s like half her age. Wouldn’t it be terrible if they moved away now, with everything Carol’s done to brighten our lives? And Connie, wow, I’d sure miss her too. Ha ha. So quiet and nice and grateful.”
Patty was looking a mess, gray-faced, poorly slept, underfed. It had taken her an awfully long time to start looking her age, but now at last Merrie Paulsen had been rewarded in her wait for it to happen. pg. 14

You could see her pacing in the alley then, trembling with frustration. She did repeatedly call the police about the noise, and a few times they actually came and had a word with Blake, but they soon got tired of hearing from her and did not come back until the following February, when somebody slashed all four of the beautiful new snow tires on Blake’s F-250 and Blake and Carol directed officers to the next-door neighbor who’d been phoning in so many complaints. This resulted in Patty again going up and down the street, knocking on doors, ranting. “The obvious suspect, right? The mom next door with a couple of teenage kids. Hard-core criminal me, right? Lunatic me! He’s got the biggest, ugliest vehicle on the street, he’s got bumper stickers that offend pretty much anybody who’s not a white supremacist, but, God, what a mystery, who else but me could want to slash his tires?” pg. 20

As word of his insurrection spread, the emotions prevailing among the Ramsey Hill gentry were pity for Walter, anxiety about Patty’s psychological health, and an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude at how normal their own children were—how happy to accept parental largesse, how innocently demanding of help with their homework or their college applications, how compliant in phoning in their afterschool whereabouts, how divulging of their little day-to-day bruisings, how reassuringly predictable in their run-ins with sex and pot and alcohol. The ache emanating from the Berglunds’ house was sui generis. Walter—unaware, you had to hope, of Carol’s blabbing about his night of “losing it”—acknowledged awkwardly to various neighbors that he and Patty had been “fired” as parents and were doing their best not to take it too personally. “He comes over to study sometimes,” Walter said, “but right now he seems more comfortable spending his nights at Carol’s. We’ll see how long that lasts.”
“How’s Patty taking all this?” Seth Paulsen asked him.
“Not well.” pg. 24

“It’s a wonder,” Seth Paulsen remarked to Merrie afterward, “that the two of them are even still together.”
Merrie shook her head. “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.” pg. 26


Jeanne said...

I agree--one of the things I admire about this novel is how much he made me dislike Patty. And now, how I think of this author and his kind-of-mouthpiece-on-this-issue-character when my indoor/outdoor cats (occasionally) kill a bird.

Lori L said...

I was already totally in Franzen's camp with the domesticated cats vs. birds issue, which really made it a non-issue for me. It's good to see you enjoyed Freedom too.