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.
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.
Alright, well, I’m zero for two. I need to convince someone to read The Corrections. Everyone loves The Corrections!
The Corrections is #43 in the 2007 edition of The 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Freedom is not on the list yet, but odds are it will be.
Freedom was only $10 on the Kobo, a steal compared to buying a hardcover and much faster than waiting for a hold at the library. But it’s really hard to blog about a book read on Kobo. I can’t flip back and find plot points and quotes. It’s been weeks since I finished and my memory is abysmal. I couldn’t remember the word “norm” tonight. And then I lost my keys. So, bear with me.
I am not nearly as impressed with Freedom as I feel I ought to be. I felt the same way about The Corrections (hardcover sitting on my bookshelf; Wee Book Inn score). Jonathan Franzen is a great writer, but I can just feel how hard he’s trying to say something smart/ironic/witty/whatever. I keep thinking, “oh, I see what you’re doing there”.
I wish the whole book was about Patty, a natural urban mama before it was cool to be one, and Richard, the hipster musician she loves and can’t have. Franzen uses their story to explore different meanings of “freedom” – from worry, from commitment, from love – and the whole thing is just drop dead romantic. He writes an album for her. Enough said!
But there’s a LONG interlude about her husband’s environmental crusade and affair with his young assistant. The environmental crusade becomes a bit of a soapbox for the childfree movement. I felt like I was reading Atlas Shrugged; I couldn’t tell if we were still on the story, or if I was now just reading someone’s political views (Franzen’s? He is childfree, but by default; it’s his wife who didn’t want kids). While this was all rather interesting, it was jarring and out of place. Or maybe, being a breeder and all, I don’t wanna think about how my precious babies will destroy the planet and just wanna read about loooove.
Weeks later, I’m struggling to remember everything important about this book, but the characters, particularly Patty, have stuck with me. I’m not as impressed as I ought to be, but I’m very impressed when a childfree guy like Jonathan Franzen creates such a real and complex character who happens to be a stay-at-home-mom.
“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”