Freedom follows the lives of the Burglund family, a well-to-do middle class family that appears to have it all: pretty couple, pretty children, pretty neighborhood. As the story progresses and the characters are filled in, however, it becomes apparent that Patty and Walter Burglunds’ marriage has been falling apart basically since day one. Patty feels like she settled for wholesome Walter when her dream man and indie musician, Richard Katz, is out there living the life she always wanted. Richard and Walter were roommates in college and nearly inseparable until Patty started hanging around and Richard’s career really started taking off. Walter is unfulfilled in his career and fed up with Patty’s erratic behavior. When the family moves to Washington D.C. so that Walter can follow his dream of being an environmental activist, everything changes. Patty reconnects with Richard, Walter’s stunning and foreign assistant falls in love with him, and their now adult son gets in the business of selling some pretty sketch materials to suppliers in the Iraq war. Told from different perspectives and partially through Patty’s therapeutic autobiography, the reader gets an eclectic account of the lives of the Burglands and those touched by their story.
Oprah and President Obama both loved this book, calling it “terrific” and “a masterpiece”. This is quite some heavy praise coming from an overwhelmingly respected audience. It was originally released in 2010 and I just got around to reading it after listening to someone on NPR gush about it earlier this year. To be honest, it was definitely great. There is no doubt that it kept me interested, turning the pages, and waiting for some vastly amazing climax. Franzen’s prose and attention to the littlest detail makes this close to the most epic novel I have ever read. Seriously, all the makings of an American classic novel are here. But… it just felt so pretentious. Does anyone care about the first world problems of white, upper-middle class mid-westerners? Affairs, financial corruption, the woes of a lost inheritance—it was all so unreal. Does anyone live like this? Then again, I’m not sure Franzen wrote any of his characters to be truly likeable, which in a way does make them human. Franzen also pushes a pretty left-ish political agenda and while I don’t disagree with it, his points feel a little heavy-handed and unnecessary as his audience is generally pretty liberal anyway.
Should you read this? Yeah. Probably. Maybe. You won’t have to fight for a copy anymore, so there’s that. Maybe get it on audio and listen to it while you’re commuting so that the next time you’re at a waspy dinner party you have something to talk about.