The epic sprawl of this ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying novel encompasses everything from indie rock to environmental radicalism to profiteering in the Middle East.
The first novel from Franzen in almost a decade invites comparisons with its predecessor, The Corrections, which won the 2001 National Book Award and sparked controversy with Oprah. Both are novels that attempt to engage—even explain—the times in which they transpire, inhabiting the psyches of various characters wrapped in a multigenerational, Midwestern family dynamic. Yet the plot here seems contrived and the characters fail to engage. The narrative takes the tone of a fable, as it illuminates the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, politically correct liberals who have a seemingly idyllic marriage in Minnesota, and their two children, who ultimately find life way more complicated than the surface satisfaction of their parents had promised. Through flashbacks, chronological leaps and shifts in narrative voice (two long sections represent a third-person autobiography written by Patty as part of her therapy), the novel provides the back stories of Patty and Walter, their disparate families and their unlikely pairing, as the tone shifts from comic irony toward the tragic. Every invocation of the titular notion of "freedom" seems to flash "theme alert!": "He was at once freer than he'd been since puberty and closer than he'd ever been to suicide." "She had so much free time, I could see that it was killing her." "People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily." "But it didn't feel like a liberation, it felt like a death." Such ideas seem a lot more important to the novelist than the characters in which he invests them, or the plot in which he manipulates those characters like puppets. Franzen remains a sharp cultural critic, but his previous novels worked better as novels than this one does.
If "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" (as Kris Kristofferson wrote), this book uses too many words to convey too much of nothing.Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
"Use Well Thy Freedom": this motto, etched in stone on a college campus, hints at the moral of Franzen's sprawling, darkly comic new novel. The nature of personal freedom, the fluidity of good and evil, the moral relativism of nearly everything--Franzen takes on these thorny issues via the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund of St. Paul. With two kids, a Volvo in the garage, and a strong social conscience, the Berglunds allow their good deeds to be tinged with just a hint of smugness (which eventually comes back to haunt them). Weaving in and out of their lives is old college friend Richard Katz, low-level rock star and ultra-hip antihero. Time goes by, the kids grow up, betrayals occur, and the thin line between right and wrong blurs. Fully utilizing their freedom--to make mistakes, confuse love with lust, and mix up goodness and greed--the Berglunds give Franzen the opportunity to limn the absurdities of our modern culture. Granola moms, raging Republicans, war profiteers, crooked environmentalists, privileged offspring, and poverty-bred rednecks each enjoy the uniquely American freedom to make disastrous choices and continually reinvent themselves. VERDICT As in his National Book Award winner, The Corrections, Franzen reveals a penchant for smart, deceptively simple, and culturally astute writing. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/10.]--Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.[Page 68]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Nine years after winning the National Book Award, Franzen's The Corrections consistently appears on "Best of the Decade" lists and continues to enjoy a popularity that borders on the epochal, so much so that the first question facing Franzen's feverishly awaited follow-up is whether it can find its own voice in its predecessor's shadow. In short: yes, it does, and in a big way. Readers will recognize the strains of suburban tragedy afflicting St. Paul, Minn.'s Walter and Patty Berglund, once-gleaming gentrifiers now marred in the eyes of the community by Patty's increasingly erratic war on the right-wing neighbors with whom her eerily independent and sexually precocious teenage son, Joey, is besot, and, later, "greener than Greenpeace" Walter's well-publicized dealings with the coal industry's efforts to demolish a West Virginia mountaintop. The surprise is that the Berglunds' fall is outlined almost entirely in the novel's first 30 pages, freeing Franzen to delve into Patty's affluent East Coast girlhood, her sexual assault at the hands of a well-connected senior, doomed career as a college basketball star, and the long-running love triangle between Patty, Walter, and Walter's best friend, the budding rock star Richard Katz. By 2004, these combustible elements give rise to a host of modern predicaments: Richard, after a brief peak, is now washed up, living in Jersey City, laboring as a deck builder for Tribeca yuppies, and still eyeing Patty. The ever-scheming Joey gets in over his head with psychotically dedicated high school sweetheart and as a sub-subcontractor in the re-building of postinvasion Iraq. Walter's many moral compromises, which have grown to include shady dealings with Bush-Cheney cronies (not to mention the carnal intentions of his assistant, Lalitha), are taxing him to the breaking point. Patty, meanwhile, has descended into a morass of depression and self-loathing, and is considering breast augmentation when not working on her therapist-recommended autobiography. Franzen pits his excavation of the cracks in the nuclear family's facade against a backdrop of all-American faults and fissures, but where the book stands apart is that, no longer content merely to record the breakdown, Franzen tries to account for his often stridently unlikable characters and find where they (and we) went wrong, arriving at--incredibly--genuine hope. (Sept.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.