I experienced a real physical reaction while reading Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” After a couple hours with the novel, my cheeks grew hot and my ears took on a fiery red color. I became agitated and frustrated by the bad turns the characters’ lives took, characters who are basically good people.
I sat with the book for several more hours, until the characters’ lives took another turn, this time for the better. I felt better, too.
The ability to affect a reader physically — especially an avid reader who recognizes when an author is playing with her emotions, and is usually quite able to stop that game in its tracks — is a true gift. And there is no doubt that Franzen has rare talent as a writer.
“Freedom” is an amplified version of modern life. As runway fashions are often an overstated version of what consumers see in stores, everything feels bigger and louder in “Freedom.” Yet, there’s an off-the-rack perspective to it, too — situations and circumstances that we can all identify with and feel like we’ve worn on some level.
The story starts with a neighbors’-eye view of the Patty and Walter Berglund family. Patty and Walter seem near perfect. She stays at home with their two kids, bakes cookies for the neighbors and baby-sits for free. He’s a community do-gooder, an environmental lawyer and a family man.
But then the author gives readers a closer look at this tight little unit, and we find that it’s really falling apart. Readers learn that as youngsters, Patty and Walter experienced situations that tainted their personalities and made them strive too hard for the wrong things as adults.
The most-raw look at the Berglund household comes from a large section in the book titled “MISTAKES WERE MADE Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion).”
In this section, Patty is the narrator and she lays everything down, thinking nobody will ever read her words. But Walter does read them, at a point when his now-college-age son has eloped and is doing drugs, his grown-up daughter is disgusted with her entire family and Walter’s best friend has just tried to sleep with Patty — again.
Was it a good thing that Walter read Patty’s words?