Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom is basically a story about a family: their problems, struggles, mistakes, temptations, loves, hates, hurts, pains, successes, and failures. It’s a pretty dark novel.

I will get it off my chest right away: I don’t like the story. It’s very depressing and disturbing. I also don’t like the characters. I don’t share their politics and their view of the world. They complicate their lives, and oftentimes unnecessarily, I think. Also, they cuss a lot. I find it very irritating. A person who curses a lot, in my opinion, is immature.

A sketch of the plot

Patty is married to Walter Berglund. They have two children: Joey and Jessica. In the beginning of the novel, we get the impression that Patty is a perfect mom and wife. She is very friendly to her neighbors. She reaches out to them. She constantly praises her kids, especially Joey. And her husband is very hard-working. But soon we find out that not everything is as it seems. The truth is, Patty and Walter have a very rocky marriage. And their son, Joey, is very problematic. He is a spoiled brat, extremely rebellious, and totally disrespectful. Walter and Joey hate each other. Jessica, too, doesn’t get along well with Joey. In addition, Joey has a relationship with the daughter of the Berglund’s next door neighbor, whom Patty hates — the Monaghans. And both of them are sexually active, too, despite their very young age.

In other words, Patty’s family is very dysfunctional. We also learn that Patty doesn’t get in touch with her parents. She doesn’t like her parents, and she raised her kids away from them. Her dad is a lawyer, and her mom is a politician. In the story, Patty describes what her childhood was like, and what her experiences were in high school and college that shaped the person that she is. She is the daughter of Ray and Joyce Emerson. She has three siblings: Abigail, Veronica, and Edgar. She’s a jock. She plays basketball for her school, and she’s quite good at it. But her mom rarely sees her games. In a party, a boy took advantage of her and raped her. Her coach was shocked when she found out about it and encouraged her to go to the police. But her parents downplayed it because the boy happened to be the son of a very important, influential and powerful political family, with whom the Emersons has some sort of connection. Patty became angry and bitter towards her parents, and in college, she tried her best to distance herself from them.

Patty surrounds herself with her friends, who are all jocks. But one day she meets Eliza, an unusual girl who later turned out to be a junkie and is mentally disturbed. She was drawn to her because she lavishes Patty with a lot of praise and attention, things which Patty’s ego needed. Through her, she meets Richard Katz, who is a punk rocker, and his best friend Walter, who is a law student. She didn’t like Walter, at first. He was sort of a nerd, and therefore uncool. But Richard she was attracted to immediately. He was tall, good-looking, and has an attitude that excited her.

Patty liked Richard a lot, but she ends up marrying Walter, who loved her very much.

But Richard remains a strong temptation for her — an “itch that begged to be scratched.” They eventually had an affair, but it was short-lived because Richard couldn’t stand betraying his best friend. What followed for Patty was years of depression. Richard was already a recognized musician by that time, and Walter was successful in his own career (The two of them have always been competitive). Walter loves the environment and is passionate about the issue of overpopulation. Ironically, however, he ends up working for a big corporation that is not environment-friendly and has ties with oil companies. He wanted to compromise because he wanted to provide a permanent refuge for Cerulean Warblers. He saw that the long-term effect of what his company is doing is good for the environment, although the short-term effect “looks” destructive. He later became disillusioned when he saw the real picture, and his career ended.

Walter has a personal assistant, Lalitha, who is very attractive, young, intelligent, and who shares his passion for the environment and overpopulation. She is very much devoted to him. In fact, she loves him, but initially he did not give in to the temptation of having her (or giving himself to her) because he wanted to preserve his marriage and prove to the world that a man can be faithful to his wife even if their marriage is struggling. But later, he did give in, when he found out about Richard and Patty — when he read Patty’s “manuscript” detailing the affair. Patty’s intention, however, in letting Richard read it, was to help him understand that the two of them can never be together again because she loves Walter and wants to devote herself to him. But Richard left the manuscript in Walter’s office. So, enraged, Walter drove Patty out of their mansion, and they didn’t see or speak to each other for over six years. He lived like a hermit in their house in Nameless Lake after Lalitha died from a car accident, distancing himself from the world and all human emotion, and focused on what he cared about the most — endangered birds.

The ending of the story, though, is somewhat happy.

Personal thoughts

As I’ve said, I don’t like the characters. Walter, when he’s angry, sounds like a whining child. I don’t share his politics and worldview, and I can understand where he’s coming from. But I resent his tendency to badmouth Christians in general and the Pope in particular. It’s very immature. Richard is just a jerk, a sex maniac who doesn’t give a crap about women. He simply uses them like objects and throws them away like garbage once he’s done with them. He’s passionate about his music, message, and philosophy, but he’s actually just a hypocrite. I can sympathize a bit with Patty. She struggles to make her life and family work, but she keeps on making mistakes. Her infidelity was truly serious, though, and as a result, she experienced depression, wrecked her marriage, and suffered further emptiness and sadness. Joey is just a very arrogant, stubborn, and spoiled kid. And, like Richard, he’s a sex maniac. Connie is weird. Jessica is okay. She’s intelligent, outspoken, free from vice, but she talks a lot and is emotionally distant.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars.
Date Read: September 1 – March, 2012

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