Although the term “pleasure reading” is somewhat foreign to many law students, I recently found time to sit down with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The novel, which follows the turbulent relationships between members of the Berglund family, is delightful, provocative, and often heartbreaking. Franzen’s characters, confronted with materialism and complications arising from their interpersonal relationships, are forced to assess their personal and family values in their search for the meaning of true freedom.
Freedom follows Walter Berglund, a conflicted, left-leaning environmental lawyer, from his college years to the present time, tracing the evolution of his perspective on life, love, and the natural world. Franzen defines Walter’s character through his tumultuous family relationships, unremitting love of birds, relentless distaste for cats, and unorthodox views on population control. As the story develops, Walter struggles to maintain his environmentalist bent after becoming involved with a mountaintop removal coal project in Appalachia.
Franzen writes the second part of Freedom from the perspective of Walter’s wife, Patty. The black sheep of her artistic family throughout her youth, Patty’s athletic prowess leads her to the University of Minnesota, where she meets Walter. Patty’s unrequited desire for Walter’s roommate, Richard, leads to an unconventional courtship between Walter and Patty. Throughout their relationship, Walter and Patty often cannot tolerate each other. At the same time, they cannot live without one another.
Freedom also follows Walter’s often-strained relationship with his conservative son, Joey, who becomes involved in an unscrupulous—though lucrative—scheme to sell defective truck-parts in Iraq. Freedom marvelously portrays Walter and Joey’s deeply flawed, dynamic relationship, and Joey’s personal evolution.
Themes of compromise, love, hope, and the struggle to define personal freedom emerge from Franzen’s novel. His realistic portrayal of a maladjusted, contemporary American family often elicits a reader’s personal recognition of the imperfect characters and shows what it truly means to be human.