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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

picture of book cover

It's impossible for me to form an opinion about Freedom: A Novel in a vacuum. I suspect that if I existed in another time and place and picked it up, I'd like it, but I would never think of it as the literary event of the decade.

Time Magazine, and the New York Times, disagree.

While I have many reservations about Freedom: A Novel , there are many aspects that are remarkable, perhaps even genius. It's worth noting that it's the first book in ages that a large cohort of my friends were reading upon its publication. That's no small thing these days, when so much of our book time is spent reading young adult fiction, perusing the classics, or trying to catch up on a year of New Yorkers. Not to mention how many of us shrug when there's a new interesting book and say "eh, I'll wait for it in paperback." (I fully expect a year-in-review article in the NY Times about how Jonathan Franzen and Suzanne Collins saved publishing this year.)

But what makes the experience of reading Freedom: A Novel fun is that there's as much to hate as to love, which makes arguing about it a far more satisfying experience.

Freedom: A Novel obstensibly follows the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, and is a treatise on surburbia, marriage and children. Franzen's prose jumps off the page, whether it's phrases like "affable bee" or "drinkable dough." In a novel of this length, there's a brutality that comes with the lives of so many characters, especially as they try to achieve freedom from themselves, their parents, their careers, their children or their spouses. One of my favorite paragraphs is early on in Patty's "autobiography," where the star athlete makes a commitment to become a better person, and promptly slips on black ice, destroying her knee. But that casual cruelty works both ways - my biggest criticism of Freedom is that it lacks heart for large sections, with Franzen dazzling us with his writing but giving little in the way of emotion behind his characters. I don't strongly believe that a novel needs to have a likeable character, but I do appreciate when the author seems to like his characters. Franzen's strongest passions appear come out when writing about songbirds, or in literally the last paragraph, which was so beautiful that it managed to redeem the last fifth of the book for me.

Speaking of songbirds, let's just say the bird/flying/migration metaphor becomes a little heavy. While I admire Franzen's passion for the cerulean warbler, the long paragraphs about the horrible fate of bird habitats made me feel like I had stumbled into one of my sister's ecological destruction books, or, as I think of them collectively, "Dead Aid and It's No Use: How the White Man is Destroying the Third World and Puppies."

But the great thing about Freedom: A Novel is that it is truly is an excellent book club pick, whether it's for Oprah's minions, highbrow university types or ladies who lunch. I would recommend it for those who liked A Visit from the Goon Squad or Mr. Peanut (Borzoi Books) . Far more importantly, however, I would recommend it for women who normally read Jodi Picoult or Jennifer Weiner. There's nothing hard or scary in Freedom: A Novel , and, even if you hate it, it will allow you to more adequately defend the skill of those yeoman women writers who don't have the luxury of spending a decade writing a 600-page novel.