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Freedom (2010)
Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 570pp

Was there a more anticipated novel in 2010 than Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom? It has been nine years since The Corrections made his name (or was it the furore with Oprah Winfrey that made his name?), and now Freedom is upon us, Franzen once again provokes controversy: his book had to withdrawn and pulped following mistakes in printing in the UK; his glasses were stolen and held to ransom, leading to helicopter pursuit across Hyde Park; Jodi Picoult, amongst others, has complained that the critics praise white male authors, and ignore female writers almost entirely (and she is correct) whilst Oprah Winfrey seems to have forgiven him and put his new novel on her book club lists; he has been on Time Magazine, and is said to have written “The Great American Novel.” Barack Obama even read it on holiday. It has led to one critic to coin the term Franzenfreude. So the big question has to be: is it any good? With a resounding, and almost entirely universal voice, we can scream “Hell Yes!”

The Berglund family are at the core of this novel: Walter meets Patty at university, where she is in love with both him and his best friend, the future rock star Richard Katz. On a road trip across America, Patty propositions Richard, but he tells her to go be with Walter. Over the next few decades, Walter and Patty have children, and Richard drifts in and out of their lives. Walter becomes ecologically obsessed, and uses his work to attempt to create a wildlife reserve in West Virginia, whilst his Indian assistant falls in love with him. His son, meanwhile, is engaged but trying not to cheat on his future wife, and selling dodgy vehicle parts to the US Military in Iraq. These brief apercu’s give only a small insight into events in Freedom. What Jonathan Franzen does in this masterly novel, is highlight a number of concerns to American way of life, and explore them through this one family. His format allows him to come closer to exploring what it is to be American family in the twenty-first century than any other writer.

Freedom is not without its flaws: the sections comprised of Patty’s diaries are a little too artificial, and some of the secondary characters remain a little distant, including the Berglund’s daughter, Jessica. These are but small quibbles in a book that is provocative, entertaining and extremely well crafted. I suspect, along with The Corrections, that Franzen has written two novels that will last, and be read a hundred years from now (that’s if people still read then!)

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