Freedom is a 2010 novel by American author Jonathan Franzen. It was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Freedom received general acclaim from book critics, and was ranked one of the best books of 2010 by several publications, and has been described as a “Great American Novel”.
The novel follows the lives of the Berglund family, particularly the parents Patty and Walter, as their lives develop and then their happiness falls apart. Important to their story is a college friend of Walter’s and successful rock musician, Richard Katz, who has a love affair with Patty. Walter and Patty’s son, Joey, also goes through his own coming of age challenges.
Franzen began working on the novel in 2001, following his successful novel The Corrections. The title of the novel was an artifact of his book proposal, where he wanted to write a novel that freed him from the constraints of his previous work. The cover of many editions of the novel includes a cerulean warbler, a songbird, for which Walter works to create an environmental preserve.
Freedom follows several members of an American family, the Berglunds, and their close friends and lovers, from the last decades of the twentieth century up until the early years of the Obama administration. The novel “chronicles the struggling marriage of Walter and Patty, a Mid-Western, middle-class couple, interlaced with painfully accurate observations on the travails of family life – incompatible siblings, unruly offspring, inadequate parents and, in its bleakest moments, the slow collective march towards death.
Freedom opens with a short history of the Berglund family during their time living in St. Paul, Minnesota, from the perspective of their nosy neighbors. The Berglunds are portrayed as an ideal liberal and middle-class family, and they are among the first families to move into urban St. Paul after years of white flight to the suburbs. Patty Berglund is a charming and youthful homemaker with a self-deprecating sense of humor; her husband Walter is a mild-mannered but principled lawyer with environmentalist advocacies.
They have one daughter, Jessica, and one son, Joey, the latter exhibiting precocious independence and talent for making money. Joey becomes sexually involved with a neighborhood teen named Connie Monaghan and begins to rebel against his mother, going so far as to move in with Connie and her family, making Patty and Walter increasingly unstable. After many unhappy years, and after both Joey and Jessica have gone off to college, Patty and Walter relocate to Washington, D.C., abandoning the neighborhood and house they have worked so hard to improve.
The second section of the novel is a story-within-a-story, presented as an autobiography written by Patty at her therapist’s suggestion. She recalls her youth as a star basketball player, her alienation from her busy Democrat parents and artistically-inclined siblings, and her being date-raped. Instead of attending an East Coast elite college like her siblings, she obtains a varsity scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where she continues her successful basketball career. Through her best friend at the time, a possessive and disturbed girl named Eliza, she meets an attractive indie rock musician named Richard Katz, and his nerdy but kind roommate, Walter Berglund.
After suffering a career-ending knee injury, Patty longs for affection; failing to woo Richard, she settles down with Walter, who has been patiently courting her for more than a year. Patty reveals that although she does love Walter, it was Richard who has always attracted her physically, and she secretly retained this desire even through two decades of raising a family with Walter. She eventually betrays Walter in a brief affair with Richard, during a stay at the Berglunds’ vacation house located next to an unnamed lake in Minnesota. She learns that Richard denied her advances decades earlier out of respect for his best friend Walter.
The penultimate section of the novel is a follow-up chapter to Patty’s autobiography, written specifically for Walter. Patty reveals that she has not talked to Walter for six years. She lasted only several months living with Richard, aware of their long-term incompatibility.
She stayed for a few months afterward with her college basketball friends, until her father was suddenly diagnosed with cancer, and she spent time with him in his final days. After her father died, the family quarreled over his estate; she visited each of her siblings to negotiate a compromise. The experience redeemed her relationship with her family. She went to live alone in Brooklyn and worked at a private school, where she found a passion for teaching and coaching young children. She relates that Joey has been successful in a new sustainable coffee business, while Jessica has focused on a career in publishing, and that Patty’s separation from Walter has caused the siblings to become closer to each other despite their differences.
Six years after she left Walter, Patty runs into Richard, who is now comfortable with his success. Richard convinces Patty to get in touch with Walter, saying she’s good at telling stories, and this motivates her to write a concluding chapter to her autobiography.
Author: Jonathan Franzen
Country: United States
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Publication date: August 31, 2010
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