My First Franzen: Eff you and your flat female characters! (Freedom, 2010)

The second in a series in which I convince hapless readers to take on the Fran Man, today’s First Franzen is courtesy of my sister Caitlin Higgins. Caitlin is a sometime-vegan Canadian ex-pat living in St. Paul, Minnesota and previously shared a tour of Freedom’s notable settings. Check her out on Twitter or on her blog, The Angry Vegan, now defunct, but worth reading the archives.

So many feelings happened as I read this book, but surprisingly, when I finished I didn’t know how to share my opinion. I didn’t love Freedom; I didn’t hate it. There were points where I felt both of these feelings as I read, but I walked away thinking, “Really??? That’s it??”.

I started out selfishly thinking it was going to be a great book, because it was set in St. Paul, MN and I moved to St. Paul just a few months before. I love reading books set in places I have been. I really like recognizing streets and landmarks (I found out later that Barrier Street does not really exist… was it supposed to be symbolic?). There is something about walking in the same place a book is set that gives you an instant connection. freedom

There is so much flipping around in this book from one character’s story to the next, making it a tricky read. Most of my reading is done in 20 minute spurts at the gym with long breaks in between, and I was constantly forgetting where I was in the story. I can’t blame Franzen for that one though. Now that I have a hard copy, I can see, this is no gym read!

The story is told in a mix of Patty narrating her own life and marriage, and a variety of characters in Patty’s world narrating: husband- Walter, son- Joey, BFF/Lover- Richard, and a little bit from daughter Jessica. Franzen is great at giving these characters depth. I truly felt I understood the character under the spotlight and then as the story went on, I would change my opinion as I learned more and more. However, as I continued to read, it was clear he is only good at that for his male characters. I went through so many emotions about Walter. First, I liked him, and even compared him to my husband. Then, I hated him. He seems so spineless. (No longer comparing to the husband!). I was either shaking a fist at him or rooting for him to do the right thing.

Patty, on the other hand, seemed to be a victim, never having control, never truly making decisions, and never having her own true plot, even when she should have. Looking back, this happened with Jessica’s character as well, and Joey’s girlfriend. Really, there was not one female character in Freedom that had the depth of the male characters. It made me really dislike this book. Everything centralizes around Patty, so how could she not be more than some helpless lump!?! Shame on you, Franzen! Is that how he sees women? Maybe, maybe not, but I walk away thinking he is a sexist jerk.


Putting my thoughts on Franzen and female characters aside, I really got into the book. I was forever rooting for someone to do something (anything!!). In the end, after everything that everyone had been through, Patty goes back to Walter and Walter takes her (Of course, after some passive aggressive punishment). Why would she go back!? WHY does he take her back?! I hated the ending so much I almost threw my Kindle across the gym. The end left me wondering why I had wasted the last few weeks reading this well-written, anger-inducing, yet somehow dull story. I wanted the book to get outside boring and normal life in some way. I wanted Patty to be OK, and all I was left with is Patty right back where she started. To me, Franzen took the easy way out.

So what do I think about Freedom? I guess it is OK (I am rolling my eyes as I type). It clearly evoked emotion, which in my case can be tough to do. I would rather spend a month reading a novel that allows me to escape from the dreary reality I live in (OK, not always dreary, but not all that exciting either). This did not do that. Despite the lack of female character depth, I did think that the book was so well written, that I’d give Franzen one more chance… even though I have a feeling I will be angry again if I do. Maybe I am a glutton for punishment.

cait reading freedom edit

Caitlin, seething with anger, reads Freedom

Alright, well, I’m zero for two. I need to convince someone to read The Corrections. Everyone loves The Corrections!



  1. The Paperback Princess

    This is a great idea. But I feel vindicated a) knowing that you are 0 for 2 and b) that your sister really didn’t love it. Maybe Franzen isn’t a sexist a-hole but he sure acts like one. Apparently he writes like one too. I say apparently because I obviously still haven’t read his work hahahahahaha. Don’t plan to start. But I enjoyed this post. Excellent use of Julia Stiles. I miss Julia Stiles.

  2. Naomi

    I am happy, after reading about yet another failed attempt at Franzen, knowing that I will be okay not reading his books. A few less books to read is a good thing. I would like for someone to review The Corrections, though, to see if it brings back any memories of it for me!

  3. kell1732

    I tried reading The Corrections and couldn’t finish it. It felt like a lot of nice writing that talked about nothing. Especially when it came to his female characters. I actually wrote a review for it and then had some guy tweet me and say that I didn’t like it because I didn’t “get it”. Haha yes. All of the reasons I had in my review were completely invalid to this guy. What a gem.

    Anyway, great idea for a blog post. Super entertaining to hear other people hate on Franzen.

  4. tanya

    I’m now firmly in the camp that believes Franzen (aka The Fran Man) is a sexist a-hole. I think having a sexist character here or there is one thing, but it seems that all his books are littered with a deep down hatred of women. And the worst part is, I don’t think he even sees it himself. I think he’s in denial.

    • lauratfrey

      I think so too. I listened to him on The New Yorker’s podcast, where they invite authors to choose a short story from their archives to read aloud and discuss. He chose a story called The Spot which was quite good (and he’s a great reader, loved his narration of his memoir’s audio book) but then he had to go and Franz-splain how the main character in the story, a white male who’s pimping out a teenage girl, isn’t privileged because he’s poor. That’s not what privilege means! He should know that! Oh yeah, and all the female characters in this story are prostitutes or victims. THAT’S SO FRANZEN.

  5. priscilla

    I read The Corrections not long after it was published (so long ago, it seems!). It was a solid book but even then I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. And I could do without the talking poo. (Oh, new Dr. Seuss! “What Do You Do about Talking Poo?”)

  6. ebookclassics

    I’m reading The Corrections! … just very slowly. It will be more like Franzen In February Spilling Into March. Bravo to Caitlin for taking on Freedom. I enjoyed her photo tour of St. Paul too.

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