Saturday, March 23, 2013

Freedom - by Jonathan Franzen

The main character of this large book appears to be Patty Berglund. Her husband Walter figures prominently as well, as do several other characters. But Patty is the only one who gets to write portions of her own "autobiography", oddly in the third person.

Patty was an athletic young girl who got knocked off the track to a basketball career when she injured her knee. She changed her dreams, married Walter, had children, did her best to become a super housewife. She knew all along that she was not as nice as others thought she was, but there was much she did not know about herself.

Patty was originally attracted to Walter's best friend, Richard Katz. Katz was a musician, womanizer, who initially did not respond to Patty's hints. Patty, however, found herself increasingly attracted to Walter anyway. Walter was almost an anti-Richard. Thin, geeky, an environmentalist. Something in him, though, responded to something in Patty, the ex-athlete who was not much aware of the environment.

We follow Patty and Walter through many years, dipping into the lives of their children and parents as well. Until comes a time when something has gone out of their marriage and Patty is dissatisfied in general. She has become less and less fun to be around for just about everyone. In spite of which Richard is drawn to her.

What is "freedom" in this context? The freedom to do as we please? The freedom to be away from others, to be alone? We watch as Richard continues his self-destructive life, as free as can be. We see Patty and Walter's son free himself from the nest, then later engage make some questionable choices in his career, free from interference. Patty and Walter live their own lives, essentially free of each other.

Some reviewers have called this a novel of its time, and as I think of it I can agree. In a way, it sums up life today in the US for many in the upper middle class in a way that reminds me of John Cheever. There is a lot of humor but underlying that is real warmth. Something you don't see so much in Cheever. 

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