If at first you don’t succeed …

Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen

A few years ago, following the recommendations of almost every book reviewer, I opened Jonathon Franzen’s Corrections with high expectations–winner of the National Book Award; Time’s Great American Novelist. About 40 pages later, I was done. Now I’m no wimpy reader, but Franzen’s prose was dense and I didn’t feel that “Me! Me!” tug from the characters. A fellow English teacher, and an abashed Franzen fan, dropped the book off at my house saying, “No rush–whenever I got to it … ” Such a soft sell. After getting tired of  the 3 inch tome staring back at me from my reading shelf, I broke down. How bad could it be, after all?

Let me begin by saying that this time I finished the novel. And I’m actually quite proud of that because I was tempted many times to quit. Was the prose still dense? Yes–though maybe not so much. Did I feel that tug from the characters? Yes–although when Patty and Walter Berglund showed their true colors I felt hornswoggled. The summary in PW is accurate enough for anyone not familiar with the story: two young liberals build an idyllic life together: model marriage, precocious kids, This Old House renovations–they had it all and did it all. Or so it seemed. But sugar-coating only cracks and crumbles under the weight of reality,and what lies beneath is often rotting. And so it was with Patty and Walter. Their lack of emotional intelligence led to repression, jealousy, betrayal, adultery.

I don’t need Pollyanna or happy endings. But I do need to feel as though characters I live with throughout a novel have some redeemable characteristics. And here I found none. After their lives collapse, both Patty and Walter try to reinvent themselves, but still find little happiness, and their reunion at the novel’s end feels thin. In many ways, Freedom was the twin of We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. But I left Oates’ novel satisfied at the family’s reconciliation and reinvention. I don’t know what I’m missing with Franzen’s novels, but I just don’t get it.

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