Saturday, August 30, 2014

What is a "Portrait of America?"

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


The Berglunds, Patty and Walter, are a typical suburban couple. This is their story, told from their early beginnings throughout their lives. The Berglunds live in a home they've renovated in a run-down neighborhood just outside St. Paul Minnesota. Soon others from the gentrification crowd join their surroundings, they bring two children (a son and daughter) into the world, and the years go by. The problem is, what starts out as a budding, happy, middle-class family, slowly becomes four individuals that can't recognize any resemblances among them.

Many reviewers have called this a "masterpiece" and most of this admiration is warranted, and for several reasons. To begin with, this portrait of a late 20th-early 21st century family takes in the hopes and joys of living the American Dream together with the illusions that this era shattered along the way. With a book so heavily anchored in reality, there is no room for fantasy, although as they and their world change, they begin to act on the very flights of fancy that their dreams cannot accommodate.

Franzen has a unique talent with his ability to extol attributes in his characters while mitigating that with language that contains undercurrents of cynicism. In this way, Franzen foreshadows with his writing style rather than with descriptions and explanations. This doesn't mean the storytelling is harsh, nor does he patronize his characters. Instead, he treads this thin line, shifting between these two aspects, allowing the reader the ability to make their own judgments regarding how the characters behave. Franzen does this by having each of the characters narrate their own stories, and so their own personalities shade and shadow the action.

The only thing that most reviewers seem to neglect is the significance of the title of this novel. The word freedom, especially for Americans, holds a myriad of connotations. Not the least of these is the very basis of their country's own existence. Interestingly enough, while Americans bandy about this word in front of the rest of the world, the exact same type of people that Franzen describes here are watching their freedoms slowly erode. What's more, these aren't always freedoms extracted for political reasons. They're also freedoms that they themselves have given away or have taken some action, which has kept them from leading truly free lives.

On the other hand, perhaps the freedom Franzen is referring to isn't at all political, social or financial. The question then is what type of freedom are the Burglunds seeking? More importantly, will they even recognize or appreciate it, when (or if) they achieve it? Of course, the answers may or may not be evident when you've read the book.

For all of this, I find it hard to assess this book. Certainly, Franzen's style and character development, combined with his artful use of language is fascinating. However, I couldn't help thinking that this should have made this book far easier to read. I actually found myself debating if I should continue reading or not. For this reason, while I will recommend it, I'm giving it only three out of five stars. 



(This is a slightly changed version of the review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Buy this book from: Amazon, from The Book Depository, on from iTunes as an iBook, on Nook from Barnes & Noble, from Kobo, or from an IndieBound store near you.

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