Of course I was going to read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. So much praise! So much backlash(!) including the amusing (if linguistically dodgy) “franzenfreude” which Jennifer Weiner coined and defined as “taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen.”
Now that it’s been out over a year, the dust has settled in the various Franzen feuds. Interestingly, it has won no major awards. It was famously snubbed for the National Book Award and wasn’t a finalist for the Pulitzer, which went to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which beat out Freedom for the major award it was a finalist for, the National Book Critics Circle Award. Goon Squad also bested it, barely, in The Morning News Tournament of Books. While one scene came in second at the Salon Good Sex awards, it got much more press when it was a finalist for the Literary Reviews Bad Sex Award. So perhaps Franzenfreude can now refer to the joy Jennifer Weiner probably takes in how Freedom’s critical reception over time didn’t live up to its initial hype.
Freedom centers on the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund, and includes chapters from their points of view as well as their children and Walter’s best friend Richard, to whom Patty had long been attracted. Patty and Walter and painstakingly drawn complex characters. Along with the others, they’re sympathetic but also easy to despise at times. I found the Berglunds and Richard to be good company, and I was interested in what happened, even as it often was emotionally twisting, especially as the book went on and the characters grew on me.
I did feel its sex scenes were decidedly on the bad, squirm-inducing TMI side. I found it fascinating that one plot of the book was very much like one in Egan’s Goon Squad, and these felt timely in their zeitgeist-y critique of modern media consumption. In the end, I thought it was very good, liked it and read it quickly. These characters will stick with me for some time.