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My sorta kinda review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

October 7, 2010 \pm\31 9:00 pm

“It’s me,” she said. “Just me.”

So yeah. I cried. Not at the very end. Just before. When Patty was sitting on the steps to the cabin, letting herself freeze. I cried because I’ve been there, wanting to give myself up to the cold. And I wanted to ask Jonathan Franzen why. Why hypothermia? And if I had of been a faster reader, I would have gotten the chance, having gotten Freedom through The Rumpus One-Off Book Club (edited) with its online chat with J.F. himself (not edited).

When I got to that passage, it was like a punch in the guts. That also happened to me when I read The Corrections in January 2002. There is a scene, a little boy riding in the backseat of his grandparents’ car, that will forever be what I remember about that book. Not because it was that memorable, but because reading it, I had a flashback to a time and place in the past, and not a pleasant one at that. But it was important. I’m afraid to look in my journal from then to see how long the loop I was knocked for lasted.

This isn’t your standard “review.” There will be spoilers. Sorry, already have been. Oops. I’m not going to talk about the writing or plot. I honestly don’t feel qualified to do that. This is about my reaction to the book. 

Sometimes, often even, I read a book and it doesn’t make much of an impression on me. I’ll enjoy it, think “this is a good book,” recommend it to the appropriate friends. But sometimes a book hits harder. Those ones end up leaving a long-lasting mark on my life. I don’t know if Freedom (yeah, I had to link, haha) will be one of those books. Only time will tell.

When I saw the notice on The Rumpus about this one-off book club, I jumped at it. I’m not a member of the regular book club (yet). Like I said, I’m not a fast reader, and lately haven’t had all that much time to read. And though the cost per month isn’t great ($25), most months I don’t have that to spare. Feeding a family takes precedence. That what I tell myself. It’s a good excuse.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a “real” writing course. When I was in college, back before some of you were born, my general ed writing requirements were covered in a two-year “Humanities” course. I was a science major, biology at the time, later switched to geology, and I didn’t see why I needed to know anything about poetry or the elements of fiction. So, I don’t really remember anything much from those days. As a result, I tend to feel intimidated and ignorant when I find myself in discussions with those more knowledgeable.

All I know is that I like to read and I have to write. If someone reads what I write, that’s nice. If someone wants to read what I write, I sorta wonder why. I’m nobody. Just another middle-aged woman with a laptop trying to find her voice. I envy those that find theirs when young enough to have the time to grow.

Yeah, that’s probably why I identified with Patty. I’m not tall, not a jock, never have been. But, I was, and still am, a stay-at-home mom (who still dreads the “what do you do?” question). And while I would probably not choose differently if I had it to do over again, I did understand Patty’s discontent with her life. I was fascinated with the “autobiography” sections, Patty’s voice, how she had to stand outside of herself in order to write her life. Often I felt as if J.F. had somehow gotten inside my head and discerned vague feelings of mine and put them into words. Some of that I chalk it up to us both being a similar age and so having that shared cultural experience that even half-a-dozen years changes. I’d read the TIME magazine article in the dentist’s office before I’d gotten the book in the mail. I remember him saying that the characters in this story are completely made up. A product of his imagination. But I wonder how much of J.F. is Patty. Not the facts of her life, but her essence.

A lot has been made of the “happy ending.” While still in the early parts of the book, I tried very hard to not read any of The Rumpus book club posts with spoilers. But I’m afraid I did keep seeing references to the ending and there seemed to me an undercurrent of disappointment. Too neat. And everybody lives happily-ever-after. I’m old enough to know there is no happily-ever-after. And in the online discussion, J.F. said he didn’t think the ending was all that neat. Now, having finished the book, I agree. Whether through design or chance, we are not privy to what happens between Walter and Patty after he takes her in from the cold. My guess is that it wasn’t all cookies and hot apple cider.

Was the ending rushed? Does it matter? Some folks complained about the suddenly seeming happiness and contentment of Walter & Patty. And then their unlikely move to New York. Maybe because I’m about the same age, bifocal-wearing and preparing for the ubiquitous empty-nest, I wasn’t bothered at all by this seeming incongruity. It’s fun to wonder, to fill in the gaps. I wonder if that’s what the author intended. I like to think that Walter & Patty had lots of soul-searching discussions, that they finally learned what it was that was good that held them together. Often our damages hold us together through years and years. The trick is to grow through those. It’s not easy work and is ongoing. There is no “end” until it’s all over.

I wrote most of this on the train heading into NYC, and finished as we passed by barbed-wire coils and community gardens ripe with early fall, over the river into Harlem, 125th St. Station. People read to escape their own life. Or to see their life reflected back at them, though maybe a little skewed. I think Freedom mixes those together. Maybe that’s why I liked it. And I imagine that maybe that’s why a lot of other people do too.

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2 Comments
  1. October 8, 2010 \pm\31 12:21 pm 12:21 pm

    ‘I’m nobody’.

    I just thought right there that lately the voice of a nobody is just exactly what I’m wanting to read, lately. Exactly that. The mother that stayed at home, the person who never did anything. How do I put this – some of the most well travelled people I know are also small minded. Some of the most experienced are the most dull. Some of the most wild (eh, I might include myself here) are also the most cowardly.

    That sounds negative. All I mean is, there’s a lot more to a life, a voice, a writer, than an impressive CV.

    Anyway, sorry I skimmed parts of this review/reaction so as not to spoil the book ,but I like this way of reviewing!

  2. October 8, 2010 \pm\31 7:48 pm 7:48 pm

    I believe abroad this book, roughly translated, is called ‘France’ or ‘French.’

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