by Jonathan Franzen
After two months dedicated to reading this book, about half of us were able to finish it. Some due to extremely busy schedules but others had a hard time getting through the book. So we asked ourselves, why? Why was this book such a challenging read?
One idea we had was that there was SO much going on at any given point. Also, there were SO many details were provided that didn’t seem to fit into the overall point of the book. For instance, the Warbler or the over population theory that Walter focused on. We understood how they fit in, but to have SO much detail about each really mad the book seem to drag on.
We also felt that there was never one major climatic event in the book. No major crescendo. There were several smaller climatic events, but it really just seemed that right when the story started to lift, it would move to another character or another topic.
And, then there is the all important question - why was this book called Freedom? There are a couple of direct discussions about the word “freedom” that I found. First there was - “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily.” Okay, this does have some truth to it. But what does it really have to do with the everyday lives of Patty, Walter, and Richard that we keep reading about for 562 pages of this book? And another quote - “You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.” No character in this book was poor. So while this quote has some merit to it, it surely cannot have enough impact on the story to drive the name Freedom. So then we ask ourselves, why? Why Freedom? The bottom line seems to be that there is no ONE answer. After reading 562 pages you’d think it would be obvious. But I think that this one word “freedom” is wrapped up throughout the entire story line like the air we breathe. It is always there. You don’t really notice it until you don’t have it. And your life depends on it.
All of this is not to say that we didn’t find numerous topics to relate with or discuss because we did. One main topic seemed to be Patty - from who she was as a person, a wife, a lover, to the main point as we saw it - her life as a mother. Her own daughter, Jessica, sums it up the best when she says - “she never really made anything of herself except being a good mom. The one thing I know for sure is I’m never going to stay home full-time with my kids.” Motherhood was what Patty yearned for more than anything. She went to college, but had no desire to start a career. In fact, all of Patty’s life choices seemed to support her one decision to be a mother. The biggest choice was in who she married. She married the man that could give her the motherhood she so desired. Not without sacrifice though. When Patty says - “...craving sex with her mate was one of the things (OK, the main thing) she’d given up in exchange for all the good things in their life together.” - we find out just how much she has indeed sacrificed. The saddest part about Patty’s story is that while she was chasing to be the perfect mother, she only chased her two children, Joey & Jessica, further away. It isn’t until the end of the book and after much, much change in their lives, that Patty finally even gets to be close to her children. Maybe because we are all women in the book club or maybe because we all have mothers, but we all found ourselves not only liking Patty, but rooting for her as well. I think she was a reminder to us all that no one can be a perfect mother. And look at the consequences that can happen if you force the idea into reality...
Another favorite character was none other than Richard Katz. Anyone who has read this book most likely saw that one coming... Why Richard? Of course one obvious answer is that he is the typical “bad” boy, garage band rocker that your mother’s pray and your father’s threaten you NOT to date, let alone marry. That naturally drew our attention. Even more so was the “love” affair he had with Walter. Sure they were college roommates. Sure they were each in need of a best friend given their family circumstances, but as you are reading their story, we find out that they are much more than best friends. Richard describes it better than anyone - “No other man had warmed Katz’s loins the way the sight of Walter did after long absence. These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow, but there was definitely something deep-chemical there.”
Need I say more???
And finally, I must mention Walter. From Patty’s husband to Richard’s best friend, he was a character in the book that you could just never decide how you felt. Some of THE most boring parts of the book are the chapters from his point of view. The Warblers (these are birds, by the way, that Walter was passionate about saving) had ZERO excitement about them. The topic of over population had more depth to it, but was just over used in the book. The most climatic part for Walter turned out to be the biggest cliche of them all. But I guess that Jonathan Franzen had to have some way to make Walter interesting...so of course he has an affair with his all too young assistant. Yes, it turns out that the “nice” guy can make just as poor decisions as the “bad” boy. We discussed that after all is said and done, wait for it - Walter really isn’t a nice guy. Despite that we are set up to believe that he is over and over again. Both Patty and Richard discussed at great lengths as to what a great, sweet person Walter really is. Even Walter himself believes he is nice when he describes why he married Patty - “...he didn’t marry her in spite of who she was, he married her because of it. Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.” But as the reader, it was just too hard to believe this same opinion. Maybe it was due to the fact that we were in Walter’s mind and thoughts and they all weren’t...
Overall, it seemed that everyone in book club was on the same page in regards to this book. Freedom wasn’t the best book we ever read, but we were glad that we did read it. It is a book that none of us would have picked it up to read on our own. It definitely stretched our minds and made us think differently. Which was probably the point.