I just finished FREEDOM late last night, the new Jonathan Franzen novel. I wrote a small post about the book when I was halfway through it, here, and mentioned how interesting it was to actually enjoy reading a book with characters I honestly couldn’t stand. And now that I’m finished with the book, though I still don’t like most of the main characters, I absolutely loved it.
This is partly because I like Franzen’s writing style. I know at least a third of the book could have been edited, which would have made the book tighter. I’m a huge fan of word economy and getting books down to the bare minimum for the sake of moving the story forward quickly. It’s often more difficult to write a 40,000 word novel than it is to write a 400,000 word novel and to get the point across without compromising anything. But, like I said, I enjoy Franzen’s writing style and didn’t mind the length of FREEDOM.
And, for me, the ending was a surprise (no spoilers here). Given the nature of these characters, I didn’t think the book would end as it did, and I was expecting to be disappointed. In other words, this was the ending I was hoping for. I just didn’t think it would happen. To the best of their abilities, the characters do arc throughout the book, especially Patty. And if you can put up with Patty’s annoying personality by the time you’re halfway through this book, you’ll enjoy the way it ends.
Joey, though, was my favorite character. He was the most exciting, the most interesting, and often the most tragic person in the book due to circumstances beyond his control. But he wasn’t always tragic, and I found myself feeling a great deal of respect for him more than once. I’ve seen other reviews about FREEDOM where people didn’t think Joey was realistic enough. But first, I thought it was, and that’s all that really matters to me as a reader. Second, this is fiction, I said fiction, and the people who leave reviews like this should just sit back, read what the author has created, and stop worrying about whether or not it’s realistic enough for them. If they want realism, they should go down to the local supermarket and shop.
The only character who slightly disappointed me was Joey’s college friend. I thought he should have been written in as gay. He was so devoted to Joey and hated his own sister so much, it would have been a perfect little sub-plot. Especially the scene where he comes into the room he shares with Joey after Joey has just masturbated and talks about the smell of the room. I don’t think a lot of straight guys would have mentioned this aloud. But I’m used to this sort of thing in mainstream fiction, where gays are usually ignored. And this is why I write what I write, so it’s all good.
Being that I write erotic romance, I found it interesting to read the way Franzen handled sex in the book. I set personal boundaries with my characters that I never cross, but not nearly as many boundaries as authors who write mainstream literary fiction. I don’t have to set these boundaries because my audience expects me to cross lines authors like Franzen won’t cross. But that doesn’t mean I was disappointed at all in the way Franzen wrote the sex scenes. Actually, this is probably the first mainstream literary novel I’ve read in a long time where an author had the guts to tackle certain sexual situations in detail. This is especially true with Joey and his sexual needs and preferences. (Joey is one horny little guy who seems up for almost anything.) I would have liked to have read more sex scenes in general, being that I believe sex is what often motivated the characters in FREEDOM…it was a strong underlying force throughout the book. But I wasn’t disappointed either. At least sex was handled, which doesn’t usually happen.
You’re going to hear a lot of people with opinions about FREEDOM. I’ve heard them myself, both good and bad. I’ve read a few reader reviews on amazon and goodreads.com that actually surprised me. And regardless of these reviews, I’d personally recommend this book to everyone, especially aspiring authors. But you have to read the entire book. If you start out expecting a wonderful reading experience and you want it fast, you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you read with the intention of finishing the entire book and getting through the rough spots, you will not be disappointed in the way it ends. That is, unless you’re a die-hard cat lover.