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Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada
My virtue is that I say what I think, my vice that what I think doesn't amount to much.

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Jonathan Franzen's most recent novel addresses social, gender and political issues and shows great attention to and appreciation of the lives of ordinary people, at least those of baby boomer mid-westerners. Patty Berglund, a college basketball star turned homemaker, is the "autobiographer". She tells the story of her marriage to Walter, a decent, intelligent, adoring but dull environmental lawyer, her ongoing attraction to his more dangerous minor rock star friend, Richard, and her fractious relationships with her son and daughter and her own parents and siblings. Franzen is sympathetic to Patty's flaws and sensitive to her inner conflicts, the emotional neglect visited upon her by her parents, over-the-top rivalries with her siblings, her guilt about her considerable shortcomings as a wife and mother. From the outside the Bergland family's existence looks idyllic but of course it's not. Familial tension resonates throughout this novel. Walter becomes totally wrapped up in his work. Much beloved teenaged son, Joey, chafing under Patty's smothering attention, becomes rebellious and moves in with his girlfriend's redneck family. Patty starts drinking too much.
This book explores the limits on personal freedom within a "free" society. There are always family and cultural responsibilities that limit our freedom and living the way one chooses comes with a price tag. If Walter wants to save songbirds he has to make some ugly compromises. Joey won't become the successful, wealthy Republican he yearns to be without making moral accommodations. Patty tries to be the super mum her mother never was but in doing so forfeits self-fulfillment.
Franzen has painted a vivid picture of the travails experienced by the middle class American family set against a backdrop of environmental degradation, the Iraq War and a culture of greed. I had high expectations of Freedom. It didn't let me down.

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