Thank you Jonathan Franzen for the Aretha Franklin tape running through my head these past few days. “Freedom, freedom, ohhh freedom, give me some freedom, yeah, right now.” Also for your excellent new book and its characters, mom Patty, dad Walter, son Joey and daughter Jessica.
If you are a mother, read Freedom to learn why your grown children hate you. It explains a lot of our mommy mistakes from both points of view. There are also intelligent and entertaining riffs on the economy, ecology, politics, and consumerism. It’s a big chocolate cake of a book, with bites of everything American from mid-1970s through the new millennium.
The characters’ poisonous internal thoughts are upsetting in a safe way. It’s only a book. He’s not talking about ME. Or is he? I have to admit the contempt Walter would feel for me and my world, my weak attempts at recycling, my new iPhone, my house in the suburbs with its green grass, would be limitless. He would, however, approve of me always keeping the cat inside.
Even though Walter’s tough, he’s also a romantic idealist, and Franzen establishes these likable characteristics early on. This is one of his brilliant storytelling skills: everyone has depth and no matter how mean and awful (Patty’s parents! Joey!) they all end up showing surprising tenderness. Well, except for the corporate honchos. They’re just all out bad.
What a great novel to lose yourself in, to learn how good people can get caught in bad situations, to enter the life of a long marriage. Franzen has said he wanted to tell a good story and not worry about the writing. “Adequate” was his goal. And, while the writing does disappear into the stories of these characters, it’s way more than adequate.
After finishing Freedom I made the mistake of reopening the half-finished NYT bestseller I’d abandoned for it. After Franzen, the other author’s prose and storyline seemed even more woefully inadequate. Want big, want juicy, want to be frightened and repulsed? Want to laugh and cry and be really sad but also happy? Look no further than Freedom.