Franzen’s Freedom, a little review.
I have a thing for Victorian novels. I can sit for hours and read Thomas Hardy’s descriptions of the English countryside or Charlotte Brontë’s account of 19th century landscapes. Passages where the mountains speak, “Where are you?” and where “the trees have inquisitive eyes” push me deeper into the novels and into the realities of the heroines. But what mostly intrigues me about Victorian novels is the historical foundation—the social, political, economical truths—that drive the stories and piece together our favorite characters. It is that foundation and the subtle realities of 19th century culture that make the reader want to walk in Tess’s footsteps or follow Jane’s path (which, I must bashfully admit, I actually did during my recent stay in England).
Franzen, an author whose writing style (think syntax and fluidity) may greatly differ from my favorite Victorian novelists, brings us back to that necessary cultural subtlety (and somewhat blatancy) of Victorian novels that makes them so much more than mere stories. Like Victorian novels, Franzen’s Freedom looks closely at the microcosm of a family, of its relationships, at a given point in history and culture. In this case, 21st century, post 9/11, America. I’ll leave it to you to decide what large, political statements Franzen may or may not be making, as you’d be silly not to pick up a copy or download it instantly. Instead, I rather share how these politics/history/culture (they are all one, aren’t they?) have the ability in the novel to speak, like Brontë’s mountains, and ask, “Where are you?”
As readers, we are forced, although not forcefully, to follow Patty Berglund through her manic stages of motherhood and back into her athletic life as a college star and forward to where menopause hits truth. In Patty’s world, life is a paradox. A loving, liberal, attentive mother raises a defiant, money-hungry, and promiscuous son. Her “rides his bike to work,” morally upstanding husband Walter is best friends with the desirable, counter-Walter, musician Richard. But what Patty ultimately reminds us is that there are no true binaries in our lives—we can’t love one or the other, make a right or wrong choice, or always be “up” or always “down.” Instead, our sense of place (whether it is Minnesota, New York, or Washington D.C.), our time in history, and the people we face at a certain moment force us to move in a direction. And then another direction. And then another.
As the narrator shifts in the novel from third person to Patty’s “autobiography,” I can no longer judge Patty for her obsession over her son, Joey, or her overly “neighborly” interactions with her Minnesota neighbors or even her obnoxious relationship with her drugged-up college pal Eliza. When it comes from her voice, a truthfulness overcomes me and all I want to do is share a cup of tea with her and offer to pay for some therapy sessions.
It is not about relating to the characters that is so enticing about Franzen’s work (although, he does satirize the “American Dream” until it no longer can be dreamt … and we all try to relate to that Dream), but it’s about the raw, honest moments that create moments. It’s about everyone having a tragic flaw, not just the hero, and about reconciling those flaws through the honest attributes—love, hate, desire, lust, greed. Even the noblest of characters, the devoted Walter, can never actually be noble.
Like a Victorian novel, Freedom gives its heroine two choices only: marriage or death. But unlike a Victorian novel, the ending in Freedom doesn’t really matter. There is no literary template that drives it. It simply is what its title implies. And then again, it is simply the opposite. Or, somewhere in the middle.