Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010
Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom has been percolating in my head for a while now. Released last Fall, and recently nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award, it is the epic saga of one family and their messy, tangled, fraying relationships over time, tribulations, eras, and maturity. It is well worth reading, but reader be forewarned, you are in for a journey.
Franzen is very adept at capturing the feeling and details of the zeitgeist and its influence on his characters' development. He does so again very skillfully again here in Freedom, whose stunning opening chapter was first published as the short story Good Neighbors in The New Yorker, in June, 2009. When we meet our main characters, Walter and Patty, they are young idealists, neighborhood gentrifiers, intentional parenting types, who are nobly struggling to balance social consciousness and upward mobility and make sense of their place in the world. They truly are Good Neighbors, a role Patty makes exclusively her own in their community. She is The Perfect Neighbor and Perfect Mother, and none in the neighborhood dare challenge her position until her son takes up with a neighborhood girl and moves in with her family, a devastating act of betrayal to Patty, that begins her and the family's unravelling.
From there the story launches back in time to Patty's college days, meeting serious, thoughtful Walter and his attractive musician best friend Richard. While Patty ends up marrying Walter, her attraction to Richard has never really abated, and later, as her family and her inner stability are shaken by her son's rebellion, she ends up betraying her husband as well.
This middle of the story is not only many, many, many pages long, the characters themselves make it really... well, long. Quite frankly I spent a few hundred pages feeling exhausted by their selfishness and self-destructive choice making. But, just as you might find yourself transfixed by the scene of a disaster, I found I was not really able to turn away from it. You realize that when you embarked on reading Freedom, you really are going to live these characters' lives with them through each and every moment, the good and bad. In the end, of course, the characters find redemption, and the reader finds his reward for sticking with them through thick and thin. Perhaps not unlike some of our own, real life, lifelong friendships or relationships.
I must say my appreciation for the book grew after hearing Franzen's interview with Teri Gross on Fresh Air, and for anyone who hasn't read Freedom yet, consider listening to it first. Franzen speaks about how notions of adulthood, parenting, and generational roles and expectations have changed over his lifetime, how he has observed those in his own childhood, and in the lives of children today. These are the central struggles of his characters - what is it to be a child, an adult, a parent? How do we want to behave, how does the zeitgeist impact our sense of How to Be, what does it mean to grow up? After reflecting on the many moments of wondering if I liked the characters, I was also left pondering what is being reflected back to us about ourselves, and do we like what we see?