Book review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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      Published by HarperCollins Canada, 562 pp, $34.99, hardcover

      Patty Berglund appeared to have everything: an adoring husband, two bright children, and a nice house in a gentrified neighbourhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. She was “a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee”, but living took its toll and the cracks began to show.

      In Freedom, his first novel since his 2001 National Book Award–winner The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen presents a panoramic, high-definition portrait of postmillennial zeitgeist, using a family and its erosion as a microcosm of life in contemporary America. A work that meticulously probes current issues, Freedom employs Franzen’s recognized leitmotifs—the minefield of familial relationships and the Midwestern United States—to examine the present mood of a nation. The book explores social strata, arteries of economic and political influence, and modern ideals, all with penetrating badinage. It is also a tale of love and longing, about the ties that bind and what it means to be free.

      Patty and Walter Berglund joined the ranks of the upwardly mobile after college. She stayed home and devoted herself to motherhood while he went out and practised law. Drifting through their lives was Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend and an emerging indie rock star whose presence inspired both affability and unease. Like everything that happens gradually and then suddenly, her domestic bliss deteriorated. The “dagger to Patty’s heart” arrived when their son, Joey, in a fit of teenage rebellion, moved into his girlfriend’s house next door.

      From here, years pass and the story lines separate, the characters now provided with their own unique narratives.

      Patty spirals into depression. Walter helplessly bears witness to her decline while following professional aspirations. Richard contends with fame. Joey makes the transition into early adulthood.

      Braiding their collective existence, Franzen, who lives in New York City, has composed a symphonic account of the pursuit of purpose and the turmoil of change. His locomotive sentences are vehicles of hysterically withering observations and exact imagery, sermons that articulate complex concepts with mirthful clarity. These fully formed characters inhabit amplified worlds that adroitly parody and illuminate our own.

      Freedom could only be realized by a writer of Franzen’s calibre and acumen. It is the chronicle of an era, told with shrewd irony.