It’s not often that I can’t tell whether I liked a book or not. I just closed the last of the 562 pages of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, put the tome down on the floor, by the side of my bed and I am unsure as to how I feel. That a book is making me think in these terms is probably positive although I struggled with entire sections that left me slightly cold, where the dialogue was jarring or improbable, at least as I heard it in my head.
My “book of all books” is “War and Peace”. Never mind that, stylistically, it’s not top-notch or that the characters live at a time and in a place far removed from my reality: every single human being will recognize him or herself in at least one of the characters, a recognition that shifts and changes as we age and re-read it. It’s not unusual to find parts of ourselves in works of literature, at least in good ones – isn’t the aim of a writer to recreate life as he/she sees it and for the readers to dive in?
“The Corrections”, Franzen’s previous novel, came out 10 years ago and I loved every page of it. I was in there and so were many of the people I was surrounded by – it was spot on for its time and place. Apparently “Freedom” took seven years to write and its scope is wide in the details, the references and the characters’ study but, in my reading of it, it boils down to the exploration of the reality of marriage and of family in America at the turn of this century. Once again, it is my generation it calls to and this time it is the sense of disquiet many of its pages provoked that stuck while I was reading. It often left me unsettled and in pain, I couldn’t walk away feeling good about it or myself. Unlike books where I find essential parts of me in a character, good or bad, while feeling somewhat removed from the people who populate these particular pages, it’s their worst common denominators I could relate to the most.
Marriage, child-rearing, living together, negotiating parents, children, aspirations and the goals we set out to achieve are messy propositions, no matter the good intentions and the certainties we set out with. They will not hold. Some of my failings as a mother, a wife, a friend were all there on the page with nowhere to hide and it made me uncomfortable to think of Mr. Franzen as the facilitator of this recognition.
Would I recommend this book? Don’t take it on a beach vacation – you would do yourself and it a disservice. It’s more for quiet afternoons at home, evenings away from the tv with a willingness to be engaged, if not transported to another world. The only place is took me to was inside myself.