The best stories are about life. It’s as simple as that. When you break down even the most complex tale — whether it takes place in space or Spain, the bottom of the sea or right next door — what makes it compelling is if it is relatable to life.
In “Freedom,” this month’s selection, author Jonathan Franzen introduces the reader to Walter and Patty Berglund. A seemingly average Midwestern couple with two children.
We all know a couple like the Berglunds. There’s Patty, the outgoing housewife who does her best to take care of her family and her neighbors. (So what if she has a nip of wine now and again?) And Walter works just as hard at his career, making sure his family is provided for.
Daughter, Jessica, is studious and serious, adored by her father and under-appreciated by her mother. Son, Joey, is industrious and rebellious (which means he takes a purely conservative stance compared to his father’s liberal leanings).
The family’s existence — at first glance — is somewhat milquetoast, and in just a few pages we live a near-lifetime with them.
Franzen takes us beyond the veneer of the Berglunds’ lives.
The author shows us Patty’s point-of-view. She takes a look back at her own upbringing; she examines her competitiveness, her stellar performance as an all-star basketball player, and her struggle to suppress self-destructive tendencies.
Walter has loved Patty from the moment he saw her, vying for her affection with his tall, dark best friend, Richard Katz (who doesn’t really seem interested in Patty, though she is drawn to Richard, not Walter). At first, Walter appears to be quite a dull person, but a deeper look reveals a passionate, dedicated man, whose ideals drive him to rage and near insanity.
Throughout its 561 pages, “Freedom” follows Patty’s life as a strong, confident young girl, to a shattered shell of a woman, who is always longing for something else. It opens up Walter’s world as the stoic son of an alcoholic motel owner, who pushes away everyone he loves and plays the political system to reach his ideal utopia where people have less children and birds flourish.
Joey has to face his own demons, which really means he has to come face-to-face with himself, and open his eyes to the gifts life has handed him.
Though Franzen doesn’t reveal too much about Jessica’s story, she tends to become a sort of caulking for the gaps left between the rest of her family.
Richard’s story is delved into — at first, it seems — to act as a conscience guide for both Patty and Walter. Though, in the end, the reader sees a man who longs for simplicity, peace and love, despite his meteoric rise to music stardom.
Franzen possesses the rare gift to take the seemingly mundane events of everyday life and wrap them around the reader. Those events then become not-so mundane. We inhabit Patty’s skin, trying to fend off her obsession with Richard by opening another bottle of wine and withdrawing into our private rooms. We know how angry we can get when no one understands our point-of-view, like Walter does in trying to persuade others to join him in his love of nature and despising of humans. We have been Joey when he misses his mother, calls her, and regrets his decision five minutes after she answers the phone. We can feel the frustration and loneliness of Jessica, trying to connect with her family, even though they are all too self-absorbed to see what she is going through.
Like Franzen’s other many-layered family drama “The Corrections,” “Freedom” will take you through a palette of emotions and ultimately let you walk a lifetime in humanity’s shoes.
In next month’s column, we’ll be taking a look at yet another family (this one made up of detectives) in Lisa Lutz’s (no relation, I promise) “The Spellman Files.” If you’re interested in joining the discussion, send a brief review consisting of two paragraphs, your name and city of residence.
Contact Marc Lutz at email@example.com.