Well, a few weeks have gone by, huh?! Besides the normal procrastination, I do have an excuse as I was away last week visiting my parents for their 50th anniversary plus a quickie 27 hours in NYC as our birthday gift to us (my birthday was shortly before the last post here, while T's was yesterday). As far as books go, I am officially two behind as far as completes and, of course, have one going at the moment. Need to try to get my act together and not get too far behind as I like to do my annual best-of post shortly after the new year and with the calendar flipping to November the pressure is on! But onto this book...
I really don't know where to start with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I liked it and I didn't like it, or maybe I should say I didn't love it... there's a difference! How's that for a start?!
How I got around to reading Freedom followed a fairly typical pattern of mine, in that Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections, was on my to-be-read list forever and I just never got around it. Years go by and the author eventually publishes a new novel and I decide to read that one instead of the one that had been sitting around all that time. At least now, that pile is virtual. For instance, from my pre-Kindle days I still have the real-life behemoth book of The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay sitting around somewhere, having skipped ahead and read Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union instead.
Additionally, spending most of my time reading "literary fiction" (not sure what the exactly means, but I interpret "literary" to mean "good" or "high quality"), I felt like I was missing out on its reigning king with Franzen (tho he's even been comically - or satirically - dubbed, Emperor Franzen). But with that reputation as well as both Corrections and Freedom being dubbed "novel of the decade" or even the uber-elusive "great American novel" it seemed impossible not to have some very high expectations. One thing that did cause me a bit of pause is Franzen being elevated to "author of his generation" status. While this is certainly a good thing, I admit to some pretty strong ambivalence about other authors who have been labeled that way, say John Updike and Philip Roth. So the good new here is that I think Franzen is a worthy successor to the likes of Updike and Roth, the bad news is that my reaction to their works is the same... acknowledging their "greatness," but feeling satisfied having dipped my toe in their literary waters and moved on, not feeling any strong desire to return.
Freedom is ambitious, I think no one will disagree with that. How successful one believes this ambition is is debatable. I can certainly see why some folks call it a masterpiece (Oprah, I'm looking at you), while others are left scratching their heads. (Sidenote: While I do tend to do whatever Oprah tells me to do, especially when it comes to books, I honestly had "chosen" this as my next read days before Oprah's announcement)
The characters inhabiting Freedom are not very likable. I have had this 'debate' before here on W&C as I think that is a tough hurdle for some folks to overcome (i.e., giving a poor/low-rated review because of it), but I have always stated that as long as the author makes them interesting that's all I really need and, for the most part, Franzen succeeds on this count.
While this is basically an epic tale of American family over the past 40 years, it also tries to tackle big societal issues like the general state of our country, the government, the environment, and as one would guess from the title, the many manifestations of freedom (there's a good book club discussion at every mention of the word!). Here is where I think Franzen has varying degrees of success. Some of the detours I found to be quite insightful and intriguing, others times they were downright tedious, bloated, and/or pretentious.
If I had one word, I would say the book (and I assume Franzen, in general) is "intellectual" - and whether that is your reading preference vibe or not may just be all you really need to know about whether you would like Freedom or not. Taking a page from ice skating competitions, I give it high marks on technical merit, but a bit more wishy-washy on artistic impression... which is not to say it's not artistic, but maybe let's say it won over my head more than my heart. I do like ambitious works and I'd much rather read a book where the author swings for the literary fences, even if, in my humble opinion, they don't always succeed. While this is no ringing endorsement, I think Franzen succeeds enough in Freedom.
Ratings-wise, and even allowing myself .5 star increments, I still could not decide where this one landed... how about 3.75 stars? On GoodReads, I gave it the bump to 4 stars and while that might be surprising given how critical I have been about it, it just seemed like anything that wasn't 5-stars for Franzen work is a pretty big deal.