Tuesday, July 1, 2014


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

If you're in the market for a great big book about a modern, unhappy, midwestern marriage, boy, have I got the book for you! - said nobody, ever, probably. But that's okay, because Freedom is really terrific. I enjoyed this novel tremendously, but I can certainly understand why people have problems with it. At Amazon, the number of one-star reviews is almost equal to the number of five-star ones. Polarizing, you might say.

Patty and Walter met in college in the late 1970s. She was a basketball star with a stalker of a friend, and he was... well, kind of a nobody, really, but his best friend and roommate was the singer in a punk act who would go on to some notoriety and, eventually, success. After her career is ended with injury and he wins her over through nice-guy loyalty (one of those many problems people have with it), they finally hook up. By the late 2000s, their marriage has fallen apart, and life has taken them and their children in bizarre and unplanned directions.

The writer, Jonathan Franzen, was evidently attempting a modern take on one of Tolstoy's gigantic, decades-spanning stories of love, life, and disintegration. I confess that I find it really difficult to summarize, even in a quick way, what all goes on in this story, because it all does get a little outlandish, but I admire Franzen's moxie in tackling everything from the music world to arms profiteering with equal intensity and making it all believable.

It's a great story, equally sad and funny, and I absolutely loved Franzen's trick of writing a book-within-a-book from a different character's POV, and then introducing that book as an element in the plot, especially when he introduces it like a hand grenade. That's a bit of a spoiler - watch what you write about other people! - but it sure is fun. Recommended.

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