It has been 9 years since the publication of Jonathan Franzen's last novel "The Corrections" the story of a family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner that was hailed as a sign of the times piece of writing.
"Freedom" has suffered the fate of many books that come with big expectations. At first it was hailed as the novel of the century and was published to reviews people dream of, as critics almost rushed to outdo each other with writing about how good this book was. Then as usual came the backlash, early review in the UK especially started rather sniffily in that slightly jingoistic tone we are so good at that the book arrives on the back of impossibly good reviews in the American press. Whilst not actually saying it there was a hint of emperor's new clothes.
Well as ever the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Freedom is a great read and at times says a lot about what freedom means to us and more importantly the price it brings when we have it. The writing as ever with Franzen is spot on with some passages up there with the best of anyone. However book of the century well it's not even best of the year.
The opening prologue, one of the best bits in the book paints a picture of suburban America and the seemingly too good to be true Berglund family (Walter , Patty and their two children). We meet them through the eyes of their neighbours who faced with such perfect domestic bliss can't help sniping, but this just reinforces the all round goodness of Patty and Walter.
However the prologue ends with the neighbours shock as the wheels start to come off the Berglund family.
The rest of the book tells the family story at times focusing on different members , the son Paul and the lust for his friends sister, his swim with the corrupt politicians in the building of a new Iraq, Walter and his mission to save the earth starting by saving an American species of bird, but it always comes back to Patty, the mother and the key relationships in her life.
The only one who feels a bit short changed is the daughter, who is only really used to hold up a mirror to the actions and decisions of the rest of the family.
A number of different techniques are used with Patty's story mainly told through a two part "autobiography" written on the suggestion of her psychiatrist. It is these 2 sections that work best and ring truest. We see her character grow whilst always keeping a complexity of emotions and motivations.
Walter and Patty are so well drawn it is with the supporting cast that Franzen slightly misses. Two key characters. Walter's long term friend and cult rock star Richard and his young female assistant in his fight to save the endangered warbler just don't fully ring true. Although at least we hear Richard's voice enough to get an idea of what is going on his head.
I have seen Freedom reviewed as a laugh out loud comic novel. ( book reviewers seem to have an entirely different set of humour rules to the rest of us). There is humour but it is in the smile at the cleverness of a turn of phrase rather than a good old chuckle. In fact the one section that has a big this is funny sign hanging over it, involving a swallowed wedding ring, tries too hard and seems extremely forced and sits out of sync with the rest of the book
As for a message , well I'm not sure maybe simply Freedom is messy and it is how we deal with its consequences that ultimately define us
Just reading this back I may have been a tad harsh , Freedom is a great read with different levels and although some elements work a lot better than others , overall it is good read and the kind of big family saga that we just don't seem to be able to produce in this country
You can buy Freedom here where you can also download a preview.