Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review (Audio): Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

by Jonathan Franzen 
Narrated by David LeDoux
24 hours, 17 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, 2010

God almighty, this is one big rambling ol' book.  I mean that in every sense of the word.  From the number of pages (562!) to the years that the novel spans, to the numerous topics and themes explored between the covers (not to mention in the bedcovers of the various characters), this one has a LOT going on.

So much is going on with this book that I'm somewhat tempted to take the easy way out on this review and tell you to mosey on over to my friend Sandy's blog, You've GOTTA Read This! and check out her excellent review.  I agree with absolutely every single word Sandy wrote about this one.

Like me, Sandy also listened to this on audio (all 19 discs of it). That's 24 hours and 17 minutes. And like me, neither one of us is likely to be telling folks that Freedom is one they've absolutely gotta read.  Or listen to, for  that matter.

I'll just come out and say it: in my opinion, this book is overly hyped.  There's no question that Jonathan Franzen is a decent enough writer. That he is (although, OK, I've read better).  In Freedom, it's almost like he's attempting to give his reader a modern-day Great American Novel, a book about "how we live now," but in my opinion, it falls short.  That's because (again, my opinion) there's just way too much dysfunction within the too many mostly miserable and unlikable characters within these pages. Some of the backstory seems excessive, especially the narratives about Walter's parents that appears towards the end and Patty's relationship with her family, also toward the end of the book.  And there is a plot twist near the end that seems almost glossed over - you could almost miss it if you're listening to the audio and mistakenly happen to fast-forward ahead - when in fact it is something that is significant to Walter.

The structure was a bit odd, too.  The first portion of the novel (from pages 29 through 187) is an autobiography written by one of the novel's main characters, Patty Berglund.  It's a manuscript written at her therapist's suggestion, and serves as a device for Franzen to show his reader why Patty the formative events in her high school and college years that made Patty into the wife, mother, and woman she is.  It also introduces the other characters - Patty's do-gooder husband, Walter; their rock star friend Richard; Patty and Walter's children, Joey and Jessica.

I didn't really mind the inclusion of this "autobiography," except it seemed a bit of a convenient literary crutch for Franzen, in some ways. All too often, during the narrative of the autobiography, Patty refers to herself as "the autobiographer," which is incredibly annoying.  She also doesn't mention her sister's name, which gets a bit irksome.  Maybe it's me, but those two things kind of bothered me (just as Richard is sometimes referred to as Richard and as Katz - his last name - in other places).

There's too much that Franzen is trying to accomplish within the theme of freedom, which he skillfully weaves throughout every part of the novel - although much moreso and a bit heavy-handed in the last third of the book.

You're probably wondering why I even kept listening to this, and at times I wondered that myself.  I can identify three reasons.  First, I wanted to experience a Jonathan Franzen book. People either seem to love the guy or not, and I wanted to find out which camp I was in.  (Somewhere in the middle, I've decided. We'll see if that is true when/if I read The Corrections, which I probably will.)  Jonathan Franzen is also scheduled to come to the area for a lecture next month, and I wanted to read one of his books beforehand in case I found myself with a new author crush. (Because God forbid I wind up skipping the lecture, then reading the book, and finding out that I loved it.  Then I'd have to kick myself for missing the lecture and a chance to see an author I love.)

(As it stands right now, I'm very much OK with missing the lecture.)

Secondly, despite all of my issues with Freedom, there's something about Franzen's writing and his ability to draw one into his characters' lives that resulted in my wanting to find out what eventually would happen, in the end, to Patty and Walter.  Maybe it's the fact that Patty and Walter's story really IS, in some ways, a reflection of how calcified many marriages become over time.

"... there was no way around the fact that when you dug up coal you also unearthed nasty chemicals like arsenic and cadmium that had been safely buried for millions of years. You could try dumping the poison back down into abandoned underground mines,  but it had a way of seeping into the water table and ending up in drinking water. It really was a lot like the deep shit that got stirred up when a married couple fought : once certain things had been said, how could they ever be forgotten again?" (pg. 333)

(I was listening to this while driving all over Fracking Country.)

And the third reason I stuck with Freedom was because of the audio. I could have seen this as one of my DNF books if I was reading the print version, but audio is absolutely the way to go here.  David LeDoux narration is excellent.  He did a great job with the various voices and inflections - although, it should be said that some of the descriptions of various ... acts are rather graphic.  There's one particular scene involving a bathroom and a missing wedding ring that is so nauseating and vile that I fast-forwarded through that section.

So, I don't really know about this one.  I ranked it a 3 ("I liked it") over on Goodreads because there were some parts I liked. Just not as many of them as I would have preferred.  

What Other Bloggers Thought:

5 Minutes for Books also listened to this and concurs that this is the way to go for this one.
Caribou's Mom
Life with Books
The Blue Bookcase
The Reading Ape has a brilliant literary review, comparing the premise of this to other books of its nature
Regular Rumination
She is Too Fond of Books didn't finish this one, saying "it’s very smooth and floaty; interesting for a bit, but tiresome after a while; a little warped, as if viewed through the wrong end of a scope." (That is a perfect description of this, Dawn!)

(There are a gazillion reviews of this one ... did I miss yours?)

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Part of me really wants to read this, but then part of me is appalled by the idea of spending all that time with "dysfunction within the too many mostly miserable and unlikable characters." I like the passage you quoted, but I think I'll just content myself for now with reading your and Sandy's reviews! :--)

K A B L O O E Y said...

I'm in the middle with Franzen too. Although I think if I'd listened to the audio, I would have bailed. I read a lot faster and skip back more readily, so I could check back if I'd lost a thread. I find Franzen oddly compelling, in that I keep turning the pages, because I enjoy the writing a lot in a moment to moment way. But when the pages pile up, I find myself frustrated because I feel the weight of ambition in him -- he seems to be trying so hard -- and the books end up feeling kind of lumpen to me.

Random question: did you picture Paul Giamatti as you were reading? I sure did.

Beth S. said...

Totally agree that this book was over-hyped. I have come to the conclusion that Oprah and I just don't like the same books. :p

Creations by Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Hmm, I don't know if I could listen to this one for the length of time it would take...but then again, I'm not a fan of audio.

I gave this one (print version) three stars too. I didn't like the "autobiographical" part, nor the middle section that dealt with all those environmental issues. I was bored!

I kept reading, too, because: 1) I wanted to be able to say that I had; 1) And I actually loved The Corrections.

It's been awhile since I read that one, though...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one!

Marie-Therese said...

I was so disappointed in Freedom, because I loved the Corrections. He failed at making me care about the characters.