Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010. 576 pp)

Jonathan Franzen is an American author. He graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in German. Franzen has received widespread acclaim for his book, The Corrections. He has won the National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He lives in New York City and Santa Cruz, California.

Realism Nut Crackers

Realism is a tough nut to crack. Especially in literary fiction where the growth of the character is largely internal, too many convenient turns in a plot illustrate sloppiness and remove the suspension of disbelief. How often have you noticed a convenient plot detail in a television series where said event doesn’t feel quite in character but necessitates a character from moving from point A to point B? The Walking Dead often exhibits these shortcomings. The show sometimes feels like a Risk board and the writers explain every move in preparation of a big battle.

On the other hand, too much reality can be a drag. Alfred Hitchcock famously said that a story should be real life with all the dull bits cut out. Nobody wants to read the minutiae of a normal day. We want drama and comedy to stir our souls.

Family Fissures

Long story short, a compelling, character-driven narrative becomes quite challenging. Unfortunately, Jonathan Franzen strikes out on this level with his novel, Freedom. Focusing on a family (to much criticism given the amount of acclaim many have thrown Franzen’s way), Freedom outlines the fissures and cracks of family life, all the while affirming the importance of community and relationship.

A compelling linguist with observational wit, Franzen offers entertainment during the read, but much like a triple scoop waffle cone, Freedom holds little sustenance or nutritional value.

Most egregiously, Franzen adds unlikely event upon unlikely event, holding the reader’s attention at the expense of plausibility.

For those worried about spoilers, look no further.

Franzen includes characters in this web of relationships that are All-American athletes, Grammy award winning musicians, viral YouTube stars, a student making his first million during his summer break, and an implausible death.

While one circumstance from the above list could fly, adding all these elements within the same family feels like overkill. Yes, these archetypes exist. But realistically within on family/web of relationships? Highly unlikely. Just like the writers of The Walking Dead tend to have their characters make decisions not based on character identities but instead for an end game, it feels like Franzen established the parameters of his end story and forced his characters to land there, whether or not such actions reflect the characters he has written.

So while I found entertainment value in Freedom, the narrative leaps required to land the story are jump too far to stomach.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

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