Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Staff Review by Jack Edson:
Some people look for a "light summer read" for the months of July and August, but others of us look for a thick, serious novel that will intensely occupy us for a couple of weeks and will take us on an emotional roller coaster ride which, even though it is about "other people," will come much too close to our own lives for comfort. I thoroughly loved Jonathan Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections and when I bought a copy of Freedom at a library used book sale and started reading it, I could not put it down until I finished it, even thought I dragged out the reading as long as I could.
The plot is very intriguing, but I think the great value of this book is the many asides and comments that the author shares with the reader throughout the story. On the surface, the story is about the Berglund family; Walter, Patty and their two kids Joey and Jessica. Walter works for a very rich man who wants to use half of his fortune to save a species of song bird, the Cerulean Warbler. This leads Walter to many adventures including falling in love with the very captivating Lalithia and a serious meltdown at a body armor factory that he started in Appalachia. The wife Patty spends most of her time being very bummed out and hitting the wine bottle, except when Walter's best friend, the aging rocker Richard Katz, comes to visit. I will let you use your imagination about what happens on the days that Richard Katz comes to visit, even though Richard is mainly turned on by extremely young females. Son Joey starts off as a pretty incorrigible teenager and moves next door with the teenage neighbor girl Connie, her mom, and her mom's boyfriend, Blake, who has this monster truck with four really expensive tires that somehow get destroyed one night by someone's box cutter. To my surprise, Joey turned into a pretty incredible person by the time the story ended, even after a very frightening brush with disaster while dealing in used vehicle parts for the armed forces.
The captivating Asian-Indian girl, Lalitha, is probably the most enthralling character in the story. Initially, we see her take the job as Walter's assistant and we might size her up as nothing more than a dangerous and calculating home wrecker. But, strangely, we get to know her pretty well, and it really is impossible not to like her. She is smart, she is verbal, and just totally fabulous. When Lalitha suddenly leaves; and I cannot bear to tell you what actually happens; the characters in this book are pretty much at a loss for words, and, honestly, so are we, the readers.
In Freedom, we get to know these people, their friends, their enemies and families quite well. We learn their back stories and the author takes us deep inside their heads, especially when we wonder why they do something really weird, like why a mom might take her anger out on a neighbor's live-in boyfriend's aggravating tires. Or why a nature lover might take out someone's pet cat, Bobby, from the neighborhood because he thinks Bobby is a songbird killing machine who just has to go. Or why Joey might want to just get rid of the $85,000 he made by selling rusty car parts to the US armed forces, after he read that a vehicle just broke down in the Mideast and quite a number of US soldiers were massacred in their stranded vehicle.
For me, Franzen's writing is so appealing because it is so completely politically incorrect, so much about what we really might be feeling or thinking, even though we dare not admit it, and because his characters make me laugh and touch my heart so much.
The details that Jonathan Franzen sprinkles through this story are priceless. At an expensive restaurant, Lalitha orders a grilled cheese sandwich from the children's menu. After the neighbor's cat disappears, after many warnings from Walter just to keep the animal in the house and not allow it to kill all the songbirds, the neighbor children stand outside Walter's house calling for the cat, "Bobby, Bob-by!") During a hiatus from the music scene, the famous rocker Richard Katz works building decks for rich people in lower Manhattan and this one rich kid cons him into giving him an interview which Richard Katz totally hijacks but the kid loves anyway. And we cannot forget about the special CD "Songs for Walter" that Katz mailed Walter and Walter threw in his file cabinet for six years, unopened.
If these details I have shared do not make you want to stop what you are doing and start reading Freedom right this minute, consider this: I promise you that the ending will probably break your heart. Especially, if in your own quest for your freedom, you have made any of the mistakes that Jonathan Franzen's characters have made in this book, or if you every thought you might sacrifice your own freedom, just so that in your own life, things might just plain turn out all right in the end.
If you're interested in this book, there is a library in your neighborhood where you can find it. Your public library is a source of immediate gratification. Take a walk to your local branch and discover a vital resource that is there for the taking. Whether it's current events, a visit to our downtown cafe called Fables, something for the kids, or even booking a librarian, we're not just books anymore! Your free Buffalo & Erie County Public Library card is your ticket to millions of free resources - e-books, downloadable music, research databases, genealogical materials, our complete catalog, and of course, more than 3 million book titles. All of this is at your fingertips at any Library in Erie County or from your own computer - check us out at www.buffalolib.org.