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A taste of 'freedom' turns out to be a divisive recipe

Welcome to the final Irish Independent Book Club. This month's pick is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which is published by Fourth Estate.


The protagonists of Freedom, Patty and Walter Berglund, have always been known as good neighbours, hands-on parents and avant-garde, conscientious liberals in Minnesota. But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery.

Why has their teenage son moved in with the Republican Party-supporting family next door? Why has environmentalist Walter taken a job working with a coal giant?

What exactly is Richard Katz -- wild rocker and Walter's old college friend and rival -- still doing in the picture? Most of all, why is poor Patty becoming more and more unhinged?


Jonathan Franzen was born in 1959 and is the author of three novels: The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), Strong Motion (1992), and The Corrections (2001), as well as a collection of essays, and a memoir.

He writes frequently for The New Yorker, and lives in New York City. Freedom has been acclaimed as "the novel of the new century", making the cover of Time magazine, and recruiting fans that include American President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey's Book Club.


'The LA Readers' met for the first time to celebrate World Book Day in March 2010. The group has 13 members (including two males) who are all staff of Sligo County Council and Sligo Borough Council.

The group meets monthly at lunchtime in Sligo Central Library.


As with most books that arrive in a blaze of critical acclaim and hype, Freedom, on the whole, proved to be a divisive read for the LA Readers. "You will either love this book or hate it; there is no in-between on this one," said Pauline Brennan. "Basically it's a book about choices and outcomes, some good, some not so good.

"At its worst it's overlong, tedious, flat and uninteresting. It's clichéd, heavy-handed and repetitive. But at its best it has many throwaway lines that are both thought-provoking and engaging. You will need to invest a lot of time and effort in this book. I was annoyed and irritated at times with Freedom; I felt wearied by Franzen's relentless badgering and his over-analysis of every minute detail of his characters' lives.

"I didn't warm to or care about any of the characters, and I felt let down by his use of language at times: things "sucked"; a character was "very into" something; and his overuse of the F word was very unappealing."

Bernie Flynn agreed that the main characters in the book were not empathetic. "I found it hard to connect with the characters," she admitted. "I found their self-centredness hard to take and could not honestly say I liked any of them. I thought maybe Walter was an okay guy at first, but no!

"On the plus side, Freedom is a very interesting observation on how dysfunctional people affect the lives and well-being of those they come in contact with. It also highlighted for me how the cycle of dysfunction goes on and on from one generation, and one relationship, to the next."

Phil Travers admitted to "persevering until page 148 and then I had enough and gave up".

"I quite liked the opening of the book," Phil continued, "and its humorous, conversational style. However, rather too many characters were introduced in a very short time. I found the style entertaining, up to a point. For someone who has such ability with words, the choice could have been much less crude on occasion.

"The idea of an autobiography written in the third person was irritating, especially the continued references to the 'autobiographer'. Also there was way too much explicit detail about Patty and Walter's sex life, bordering on pornographic actually."

At the time of the book club's meeting, Tracy Scully confessed she was only three-quarters way through the book and was finding it "hard enough going". "I really enjoy the parts when the characters are relating their thoughts, on fame, on getting old, on being 'cool', but lose interest in all the monologues on American environmental policy," she explained.

All that being said, the book had its fans, too. For Teresa Keane, Freedom was "a good read: packed from cover to cover with human emotion".

"It is well constructed around characters who have both depth and personality," she added. "The Berglunds are interesting and likeable and you really want to know what happens to them on their life journey. I would recommend it."

Pauline Scully Brennan described Freedom as "a real soap opera of a book". She continued: "It was extremely well written and I loved the wit and the author's insight into human nature. The characters were very strongly drawn and displayed the full array of full-blown emotions -- selfishness, devotion, lust, competitiveness."

"I found it a very sad read for the most part, and annoying at times, but yet I quite enjoyed it," added Lorraine Fitzgerald. "They are an entirely dysfunctional family, full of vanities, insecurities and altogether too preoccupied with keeping up appearances. However, at times the uncomfortable feeling begins to creep in that it could indeed be a true reflection of life in all its depressing glory."

Brian Leyden, who is also Sligo county library writer-in-residence, summed up Freedom as "easy to read and hard to enjoy". "Franzen is an exceptionally talented writer," he said. "He has a faultless command of sharp dialogue and accurate description. His concerns are the hot topics of the day.

"But the San Andreas Fault in Freedom is Franzen's choice of main characters. Walter and Patty manage to be 'interested in everything' but interesting to nobody. Their lives as experienced over this 562-page novel may stand as an 'indictment of contemporary existence', but only at the price of being utterly unsympathetic, unengaging, and often as not miserably annoying for no good reason.

"Indeed, large parts of Freedom read like the notes novelists make before getting down to the story itself; their unedited inclusion here reinforcing the impression that Franzen's choice of characters are not necessary inhabitants of an evolving narrative, but authorial mouthpieces. The portrait of the world they inhabit is highly readable, but the failure of the main characters to generate real empathy in the reader is a freedom too many denied by their author."

Declan Cashin

Indo Review