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Sunday, January 30, 2011
Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen
Before I had read one word of this book two unusual events had
occurred regarding it.
First, the person I refer to in my ratings system as ‘man pal’ sent me an email out of the blue specifically to rave about it.
Sadly, this beautifully worded thing (he’s a clever old stick, Man Pal) was lost in the great Data Transfer Disaster when I got my new laptop last December, but one phrase from it sticks in my mind: ‘I felt as though it had been written just for me.’
I can’t think of greater praise.
The next thing was when my neighbour, a lovely, bright woman in her early 40s, appeared at my door one day, pink of cheek, shining of eye, and clutching a hardback copy of the book to her chest, which she then thrust at me.
‘I’ve just finished this wonderful book,’ she said. ‘You must read it.’
Of course it had already had rave reviews everywhere, as did Frantzen’s first novel, The Corrections and, as in that case, my initial reaction had been to leave well alone.
I generally avoid any books too hysterically lauded – especially Great American Novels – but after such personal recommendations, from two English intellectuals not given to hyperbole, I felt compelled to read this one.
Did I love it as much as they did? No. Did I find in it some of the most memorable sentences I have read in contemporary literature? Yes.
Here’s an example: ‘….[it] warned him not to mistake the pain of losing her for an active desire to have her.’
Mmmmm, roll that around in your head a bit. So good.
Freedom is the story of a modern American family, tracking the emotional histories of the two lead characters, Patty and Walter Berglund, in a masterfully managed non-linear trail from their very different childhoods to irrevocably entwined later middle age.
The point of view varies between an omniscient narrator, Patty, Walter, their son Joey, and Walter’s best friend from college, Richard – who happens also to be Patty’s One Who Got Away.
So it’s the same old same old angst of American middle-class married life scenario – but it is also much more.
What Frantzen does so brilliantly is to examine the motives and impulses of his characters at a microscopic level, while simultaneously maintaining the context of where they sit in the big picture of planet Earth at the very start of the 21st century.
This is achieved via Walter’s morbid obsession with the impending disaster of overpopulation – the statistics of which kept me awake at night worrying about my daughter’s future – the political class divide between the Herglunds and their less-educated Republican neighbours, and the affect of 9/11 on Joey’s developing moral conscience (or lack thereof).
Frantzen manages to keep this micro/macro view perfectly balanced throughout the arc of the story, without one trivialising or dulling the other. The environmental stuff packs a punch without ever feeling preachy.
But while there is a great deal I admired in the book from almost the first sentence, I didn’t love it so much as appreciate it for the first two thirds, because I didn’t really like any of the characters.
Their flaws and weaknesses are so exquisitely drawn they seem like monsters, with few redeeming qualities. But then there is a fulcrum after which I came to see that they are just humans, like all of us, in our weakness and vanity, just unrelentingly exposed.
Indeed, there were quite a few moments which made me wince with self-recognition.
Once I felt sympathetic towards the characters, I started to love the book and it switched gear from interesting to unputdownable - and like my friend and my neighbour, I found I wanted to seek people out to discuss it with. Particularly the ending.
The question I’ve been asking with spitty excitement at parties recently is: did you find the ending uplifting, or glib? Because I can’t make up my mind.
But what I do know, is that before the end of this reading year is up, I will have added my thoughts about The Corrections to this blog.
Reading satisfaction: 8.75
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 10 (he recommended to me)
Recommend to Helen Razer: 10
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness:0 (some faecal matter)
It's been a diverse career. Not many people have written for Allure and (the late-lamented...) Gourmet mag.
I've been a magazine editor, an op ed columnist on a broadsheet newspaper, and for years covered the fashion shows in Paris, Milan etc.
But while I shifted between the worlds of food, fashion and current affairs, there was one overriding passion: books.
Now I write them - five novels published, with another due out this year, and several books of journalism.
Here I write about them.