FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

SAGE RATING:        7/10

Freedom is a story of compromises, of ideals lost and regained in a less perfect form. The main character, Walter Berglund, is a dreamer. He believes in true love, moral goodness, and the protection of the planet. Throughout the novel, his ideals are battered but not completely destroyed. His wife cheats on him with his best friend, his son goes against his values and becomes a Republican money-grubber, and to top it off, Walter’s initiative to create a natural reserve in West Virginia turns ugly as he realizes that the concessions he must make to finance the project will do more harm than good. Yet, despite these disillusions, Walter gets his share of peace and consolation in the end. He turns his lake house into a small bird sanctuary, his son matures and realizes he’s much closer to his father’s morals than to the Neocon ideology, and most importantly, Walter’s wife comes back to him and risks her life to save their marriage, finally proving to him that her love is true (though imperfect).

What we liked about the book:

  • Freedom is a quality novel that flows easily and offers an interesting portrait of today's American society.
  • The three main characters – Patty, Walter and Joey – are very well developed and keep evolving throughout the story.
  • The idea that America’s brand of freedom is a dangerous myth leading to rabid individualism and unhappiness. To be free doesn’t mean to selfishly pursue your own goals and interests without caring about the destructive consequences they have on the world and the people around you. Real freedom can only be attained once you get rid of the shackles of success and ambition. In that sense, it is truly anti-American.

What we disliked about the book:

  • Too many characters are bloodless caricatures: Richard, the cynical and egocentric rocker; Jessica, the serious and well-behaved daughter; Abigail, the failed and obnoxious New York artist, etc…
  • A certain lack of narrative economy as the story sprawls out into too many descriptive details and anecdotal subplots. A good novel doesn’t necessarily have to be more than five hundred pages long. Just saying. (And that goes for many other contemporary American novelists too.)
  • The lingering feeling that Franzen sees himself as the American Tolstoy of our times. In his eyes, Freedom is clearly the next Great American Novel and we are made to feel this a little too often in the book. Franzen’s many references to War and Peace throughout the story seem forced, unsubtle, almost ridiculous. Let us be clear, Jonathan: Freedom is no War and Peace and your novel would’ve gained by having less ambitious standards.
  • The happy ending is just too sugary to swallow. You almost wonder if Franzen was told by his publishers to gratify his readership at the expense of realism. The last message of the book is that, despite human avariciousness and the ongoing destruction of our planet, some consolation can be found if we learn how to forgive and love each other. How beautiful, but how defeatist as well. Who cares about consolation prizes today if the human race is going to shit tomorrow? So instead of some feel-good ending, we would’ve preferred something more realistic and gritty that calls for action. Now’s the time to fight, not to cry.

Yet despite these flaws, Freedom has enough qualities for us Sages to recommend it.