Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen: Book Review

This book got a lot of hype (I think even Oprah endorsed it, so you know it’s legit).  For a while, it was everywhere, and everyone was talking about it.  I didn’t read it when any of that was going on.  But then two things happened: (1) a friend of mine read and reviewed it on Goodreads, and I became intrigued; and (2) while waiting to get my haircut, I read an article in, I think it was “Time,” containing an interview with the author, talking about his relationship with David Foster Wallace, and how Wallace’s death impacted his writing of the novel.  He also talked about why and how he writes women.  Intriguing, intriguing, intriguing.

So I read it.  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is hefty, both in terms of length and substance.  It is also one of the most darkly funny books I can remember reading.  It says some very negative things about relationships, love, human nature, and American society; and yet it all rings very true.  Which is kind of frightening.  I kept finding myself thinking “oh my gosh, this is so horrible, yet also so authentic” (and yes, these are the types of thoughts I have with myself while I read; I’m serious).

I don’t know if anyone would read this book at my suggestion, but by way of disclaimer, just be prepared to be offended: if you are a woman, an environmentalist, a Republican, there is really something for everyone.

The most interesting aspects of the book for me were the various concepts of freedom Franzen explores: the freedom of a stay-at-home mom to “do whatever she wants” with her days; the freedom of a rock star to leave the limelight and build decks; the freedom of a corporate suit to leave and found a radical start-up, drive a beat-up van across the country, leave an oppressive marriage, kidnap other people’s pets (you’ll have to read it for a lot of that to make sense).  The freedom of youth, the freedom of experience.  It both does and does not address political freedom.  “Freedom” is dealt with thoughtfully and ironically.  I found it both depressing and fascinating.

Recently, I have heard that women complain about Franzen’s depiction of female characters in the book.  I believe the statement was “oh, he can’t write women at all.”  Having read the book, I can certainly see why a woman would feel compelled to say that.  According to Franzen, at least as per the female characters he portrays, all women are, on some level, (1) emotionally imbalanced, and (2) sex-crazed.  Do I think all women are emotionally imbalanced?  No.  Do I think all women are sex-crazed?  Regrettably, also no.  I haven’t known any women exactly like the characters in this books, but I did not think their depiction was offensively implausible.

Intelligently, entertainingly, thoughtfully done, Franzen’s Freedom is stranger-than-fiction funny, a little bit dark, a little bit sad, a little bit uncomfortable, but definitely worth the read.

11 thoughts on “Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen: Book Review

  1. Thanks for the review.

    This doesn’t really sound like something I’d read. If I want to get depressed or see women degraded I’ll just watch another episode of the Bachelor. Ha

    • Well, it is not just degrading to women, but really to all of humankind. It talks a lot about depression and people being depressed, which might be what makes it depressing. I think that’s what got to me; I think the message is that, no matter where you go or what you do or who you fall in love with, you’re going to end up depressed, alone, and crazy. Maybe other people got something more out of it, but that was my take away.

      What kind of books do you like to read, C.E.? Besides Southern-gal fiction, of course? 😉

      • I like to read (as well as write) books that give a sense of hope. Words that inspire, build up, and cause a sigh.

        My favorite book of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it deals with prejudice, rape, murder, etc., it shows the good inside of some people who refuse to let the world’s ugliness destroy their hope for a better future. Yes, there is ugliness in the world, but it doesn’t overshadow the good.

        Stepping off my soapbox. My caffeine overload has me pinging of passion this morning. lol 😉

  2. I find it extremely easy not to watch the Bachelorette, but I read all of Freedom in about three days, all while not really enjoying it that much. I think we’re all crazy.

    • I too find it easy not to watch The Bachelor, and similarly flew through Freedom. It’s not a happy, sweet escape, but an escape nonetheless. Sometimes you want a happy distraction, and sometimes it’s nice to say “my gosh, I’m glad that’s not me.” Completely agree that we are probably all crazy.

    • As well you should. I don’t know if I am more glad I am not the Bachelor or one of his rose-seeking hopefuls. Hard to tell which position would be scarier.

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