Books | Shelf Life

Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom': EW Shelf Life Book Club

In the month or so since Freedom has come out, it’s been obscured by all the baggage surrounding it: the hype, the reviews, the controversy, the whole Oprah thing. We’ve sort of lost sight of the novel itself, and that’s too bad. I don’t, like some reviewers, think it’s one of the best novels of the year (let alone the “novel of the century,” as one newspaper called it). To me it’s one of those big, old-fashioned novels, the kind you can really lose yourself in, the very opposite of the spare and bloodless kind of fiction so in style these days.

But. First things first. What I liked most about Freedom was Franzen’s ability to paint a portrait of a marriage. The opening pages–setting the stage, penciling in Walter and Patty Berglund in broad strokes that grow ever finer and more detailed–were, I thought, almost compulsively readable. I was sucked right in. But then Franzen did a couple of things that knocked the novel off its tracks for me.

First, he inserted that lonnnnggggggg autobiography Patty wrote at the behest of her therapist. I get why he did it; as readers, we need historical detail to place Patty in context. And at least it’s more creative than using a flashback, possibly the most tired & overworked literary element there is. But did the memoir throw anyone else for a loop? For one thing, it was written in that jarring (for me, anyway) third-person. And for another…I didn’t buy it. It didn’t sound like Patty we’d come to know in only a few short pages; it sounded like Franzen. (“Based on her inability to recall her state of consciousness in her first three years at college, the autobiographer suspects she simply didn’t have a state of consciousness.”) Thoughts?

After Patty’s memoir, Franzen gave, basically, third-person accounts of the marriage from three different people: Patty’s best friend Richard Katz; Walter and Patty’s son Joey; and finally, Walter himself. Okay, fine. So what’s missing here? Or, rather, who’s missing? I’d argue that it’s the one person who’s curiously absent from the entire book: Walter and Patty’s daughter Jessica. If you’re describing a marriage and a family through different viewpoints as Franzen is–and he’s going to a lot of trouble to do so–it seems odd, and wrong, to leave someone out. Anyone else agree? Or am I alone on this one?

About some of the other criticism heaped on Franzen, eh. I don’t mind that the novel is occasionally blowsy and overdone, or that a good hundred pages probably could have been whacked in the editing process. I loved the dialogue, the descriptions, the lush language. How about the rest of you? If you’ve finished Freedom, do you like it? How do you  think it compares to The Corrections? And please, weigh in on the issue of Patty’s memoir and Jessica’s omission from the plot. I’m curious to know what people think.

Originally posted October 1 2010 — 9:00 AM EDT

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