I loved Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. While many people found the characters unlikeable and flawed, I actually identified with them all the more because they were so unlikeable and flawed. They reminded me of me — they screw up, sometimes royally, but they mean well.
But the way other people feel about The Corrections must be how I feel about Freedom.
The first part of the book chronicles the Berglund family’s swift descent from model family to cautionary tale. Walter and Patty Berglund are liberals living the good life. They have a beautiful home and two lovely children. But it all falls apart when their son Joey inexplicably moves in with his girlfriend Connie and renounces his parents’ politics. Patty and Walter fight more and more often and finally abandon their perfect life in St. Paul in favor of a totally different life in Washington, D.C.
The second part of the book is an “autobiography” told from Patty’s point of view, written at the urging of her therapist. We learn of how she was actually first attracted to Walter’s “bad boy” musician roommate and best friend, Richard Katz, but finally submitted to Walter’s wooing after a knee injury railroaded her basketball career. We also learn that she later had an affair with Richard.
The third part of the book follows Richard, who has become something of a success because of an album he wrote based on his affair with Patty. But he eschews his fame, preferring instead to install decks for rich Manhattanites. Walter contacts him, asking him to be part of a concert to raise awareness about overpopulation, a pet cause of his. When Richard comes to D.C. to meet with Walter, he tries to start things up with Patty again, but she rebuffs his advances, declaring that she really loves Walter. She shows him her “autobiography,” and he leaves it on Walter’s desk, knowing that Walter will leave Patty once he reads it.
In the meantime, we also keep tabs on their son Joey (little mention is made of his sister Jessica throughout the book). Despite his rebellion, he’s still his mother’s pet. He has a horrifyingly emotionally abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Connie, and he alternates between pushing her away and commanding her to draw near. He marries her at one point, but still flirts with the temptation to stray with other more desirable women.
By the end of the book, the family is pretty much splintered, but Franzen somehow is able to cobble together a happy ending for them.
In my view, the Berglunds were too unlikeable, even for me. I couldn’t identify with Patty’s controlling nature, Walter’s passivity, or Joey’s manipulation. I couldn’t identify with any of their selfishness. Maybe it was because, unlike the Lamberts of The Corrections, the Berglunds had no redeeming values to temper their flaws. I was continually baffled by their decisions. Even unlikeable people in real life feel some altruistic urges, don’t they? Don’t they?? I felt like Franzen was trying to test the boundaries of how unlikeable he could make a character before readers would finally say “uncle.”
Well, I’m saying “uncle.” I just couldn’t get into any of the characters and, as a result, felt that the ending was empty and overwrought.
But, man, this cat can write. Franzen has created some truly unlikeable characters here — but he did so with a beautiful hand. I couldn’t like the characters, but I could certainly appreciate the skill with which they were created.
My question is whether it’s worth wading through over 500 pages of beautiful writing to consume the unredeeming story of a family who cares about no one but themselves? I don’t know that it was.
Franzen is trying to write about freedom, here, but, in the end, I got the sinking feeling that all of the characters were still enslaved to the behaviors and attitudes that caused all the drama of the book in the first place.