Monday, May 16, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: A review

When Freedom came out last year, all the reviewers went into orgasmic paroxysms of delight over it. I was bemused by all the hoopla, remembering Franzen's last book, The Corrections, and the big kerfuffle that was caused when Oprah chose the book for her book club and Franzen seemed to diss her readers, opining that his "lit'rature" was much too high-brow for such low-brow readers. (No, of course, he didn't actually use those words! I'm paraphasing and interpreting.) Oprah subsequently de-selected the book and moved on. I figured it was probably too high-brow for me, too, and I never got around to reading it.

But then came Freedom with a picture of the beautiful Cerulean Warbler on the cover. How could I, as a birder, resist it?

It turns out that the Cerulean Warbler is an integral part of the plot of the book. Walter Berglund, a lawyer who works for 3M in outreach and philanthropy, has a strong environmentalist streak. Environmentalist causes become his life's work which he will pursue with messianic fervor. One of those causes is establishing safe havens for the Cerulean Warbler. This part of the plot (as is much of the story) is taken from real life. There is an actual Trust that works to establish sanctuaries for the bird in this country and in its wintering grounds in Colombia.

During the course of the novel, Walter's wife, Patty Berglund, spends a summer reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, something I, myself, did one summer long, long ago in another lifetime. Perhaps it was that power of suggestion but this book reminded me a bit of War and Peace.

To state the obvious similarity, they are both very long books, but it's a bit more than that. There are the multi-layered characters and an intricate plot that unfolds almost organically, in a rather stream-of-consciousness way that must have taken painstaking planning. There's the underlying theme of the brutality and, in many cases, the stupidity of war. There are the misplaced passions of characters who fall in love with the wrong people.

This book is about Patty and Walter Berglund, their family, friends, neighbors, and enemies. They are nice people of strong character from Minnesota (although Patty is originally from New York). They meet in college. Both of them are from dysfunctional families with problematic fathers and irritating siblings who never seem to grow up in the thirty years or so covered by this novel. Walter and Patty have two children of their own and vow not to make the same mistakes with them that their parents made. To some extent, they succeed, but it is hard to resist the gravitational pull of becoming our own parents as we grow older.

This is an extremely rich work of fiction the setting of which is the social history of the Bush years. The Berglunds are liberals in a reactionary and jingoistic society. There are many journalistic touches to their story, references to the events of the times, particularly after they move from the Midwest to Washington, D.C.

Their children grow up and suprise them, as children have a way of doing. Their marriage grows cold and they grow apart and still the Berglunds persevere until...

This is a page-turner of a book about very interesting, if not always lovable, characters. I wished several times that I could just sit and read the book through to its conclusion at one sitting. I wanted to see how it would end. But I have a life that precluded that and so it took me a few days. I was glad to discover that it really wasn't too high-brow for me after all. Maybe now I'll give The Corrections a chance. Franzen really is a terrific writer.

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