One of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2010
Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paulthe gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walterenvironmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family manshe was doing her small part to build a better world.
But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katzoutré rocker and Walter's college best friend and rivalstill doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become "a very different kind of neighbor," an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?
In his first novel since The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time.
Franzen frames his story through the eyes of neighbors, observers physically close but emotionally at a remove. What's impressive to my mind about Franzen's choice to begin and end at this distance is that the interpretive judgment of neighbors turns out to be pretty good and yet always askew. But for the rest of us at our privileged closer vantage points, Franzen has provided a lot of observational data -- more than 500 pages worth -- so that we can see those little markings that make all the difference. While trying to hold moral binoculars up for so long can make the characters wobble between likeability and ickiness, the development of the muscles of sympathy and judgment it encourages is all to the good -- if we can avoid relaxing into the comforts of smugness which Franzen sometimes also puts on display. It's our choice: readers, after all, have certain freedoms, too.