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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
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
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)

34 comments:

  1. The ending is amazing, and completely justifies some of the pedestrian passages on the way to it.

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  2. Okay Maggie you have persuaded me to keep going with it. I like you found the characters pretty off putting. I usually don't mind that, after all its not like we are perfect ourselves but they were just a bit self indulgent and intelligent in the way they spoke - it just felt a bit inauthentic and self conscious to me. Anyway, I can't bear not finishing a book so I will pick it up again and try to get to that AMAZING ending, and I will hold you to that promise!

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  3. I don't think the ending isamazing at ALL!
    It's an ending. But there's some interesting stuff before you get there. I do think you'll be glad you finished it x

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  4. I have to say that to me the ending felt a bit glib. A bit.... convenient. I don't want to post a spoiler, but to me the way was made clear for Walter & Patty in a way I found somewhat both heartless and pedestrian. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and particularly loved Joey's moral awakening (though perhaps not his matrimonial choices), Mr Compromise Walter morphing into a pussy vigilante (cats, I'm talking cats) and Patty waking up to herself.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on The Corrections... I absolutely inhaled that one. It was the first book I read in hospital after my daughter was born. My paediatrician scoffed at its size and predicted I wouldn't have the (post-natal) concentration to finish it, but I proved him wrong. In two and a half days :)

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  5. Hi Kylie - you feel exactly the same as I did. TOTALLY agree about the Walter journey, but - again without spoiling - I felt it all got a bit convenient and lazy at the end. Still enjoyed it though. Found the appalling girlfriend incredibly believable. xxx

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  6. I abandoned Freedom halfway through. I liked his writing style, but loathed the characters, which surprised me as I really liked The Corrections. i'm quite the fan of Lionel Shriver who also has characters that are hard to like, but there was something lacking in Franzen's book that hers have and I think it may be humour. It was all sooooo SERIOUS, as is often the case with "Great American Novels".

    Now, if only I can push on through the middle bit of Wolf Hall Kylie will not hate me.....

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  7. um, I totally loved the ending. It's not life, it's a book. Patty's desperate determined need for Walter feels so familiar to me, something I've felt at tricky times in my marriage. After I'd finished the book I couldn't bear to put it on the bookshelf straight away, I didn't want to part from it!

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  8. Wow! The end is amazing. Loved it!

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  9. I loved the ending - I was teary from L's accident onwards. I think the ending followed that ultimate rule of an ending being surprising yet inevitable. And since the accident happened, I was in no doubt that P and W did what they had to do. It would have been so easy for both of them to just hold onto their hurt and pride and go on living a half-life.

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  10. Nanna from SydneyApril 2, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    You have Patty and Walter's surname wrong.They are Berglund not Herglund.

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  11. Hi Nanna - thanks so much for pointing out that unforunate typo. Appreciate it, Maggie

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  12. I found the ending a touch glib. It's almost like Franzen got to the point where he thought, "well let's wrap this up now" and did. It was a little too neat for my liking, considering the messy journey each character in the book embarked on.

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  13. Hi Maggie, we've just finished reading this in our newly formed book club and we've had quite a contrast in reactions to it (like any good book club should I s'pose). I for one quite enjoyed it, particularly the first 3/4 of it. His character development is amazing and I felt like I really knew what all of them were about (didn't mean I liked many of them though). I have to say though, I was WILDLY disappointed in the ending! Can one be wildly disappointed? Well I was. It seemed unbelievable glib, which I can't understand given Franzen's commitment to heartbreaking realism for much of the story?? Anyhoo, we're on to our next book club selection and like you, I definitely plan on reading The Corrections before the year is out :)

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  14. Yaxshi yazidi Ruslan, teshekkurler.

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  15. Eger bele olsaydi, onda gerek Fidel Kastro, ernesto Che Givara pensiyaya cixana qeder mubarize aparaydilar.onlar mehz diktaturaya qarshi mubarize aparirdilar, Batistada onlarin mitinqlerini dagidib kef eleyeydi.

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  16. I found the ending a touch glib. It's almost like Franzen got to the point where he thought, "well let's wrap this up now" and did.

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  17. It was a little too neat for my liking, considering the messy journey each character in the book embarked on.

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    ReplyDelete
  20. HASTA BEZİ HAKKIMIZDA

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    ReplyDelete
  21. HASTA BEZİ HAKKIMIZDA

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    ReplyDelete
  22. 3d çizim Çalışmalarımızda istenilen desenleri, damaskları ve ışık sistemlerini sizlere arzu ettiğiniz detaylara kadar sunarak gerçek bir sunum imkanı sağlamaktayız.

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    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete