Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Flawed Marriage Perfectly Pictured

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Flawed Marriage Perfectly Pictured

Article excerpt


FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, [pounds sterling]20) LET'S say you have heard a bit about this book already. Is a climate of reverence bordering on hysteria the right way to approach a novel? Jonathan Franzen is a talented writer but this is not the Koran.

I was further spooked by a feeling, 10 pages into Freedom, that I had read this plot before. It is indeed based on a short story by Franzen, published in the New Yorker, in which a Mad Men-style perfect housewife and mother loses her adored teenage son to a sluttish neighbour.

Franzen's genius is to start with a piquant glimpse of suburban life and to fill in the brushstrokes until the characters overwhelm the canvas. I know Walter and Patty Berglund, the couple at the centre of the novel, better than I know my own family. Forget about 3-D films, this is a 3-D novel. The characters are alive, past, present and future. Lives are truly lived. Character is destiny but also destiny is character.

The mechanism for such vivid characterisation is partly psycho-analysis. The second chapter is headed: Mistakes Were Made, Autobiography of Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist's Suggestion).

For much of the book, the narrative is from Patty's point of view. It is honest, although not complete. A much more forgiving portrait of Patty takes shape towards the end of the novel, through the eyes of others.

Freedom is about the choices that shape our lives. Patty reads out a motto on the wall of her daughter's college. "Use Well thy Freedom".

Jonathan Franzen has been compared to Tolstoy, perhaps even by the author himself, when he makes his leading character read War and Peace. It is certainly a device of Tolstoy's to look at the particular disappointments of an unhappy family.

Patty is the sporty, self-contained daughter of New York Democrats. A shocking episode occurs in her youth, from which psychological plot lines flow. Franzen introduces the episode with ironic restraint.

"As far as actual sex goes, Patty's first experience of it was being raped at a party when she was 17 by a boardingschool senior named Ethan Post." The boy is the son of wealthy political donors who are useful to Patty's mother, and Patty is persuaded by her parents not to pursue the case.

Her father sighs: "Life is not always fair, Pattycakes." There is no melodramatic falling out between Patty and her parents but the consequential fault line is deep. A sense of injustice and self-pity forms part of Patty's character.

Patty goes to college, where her first love affair is a non-sexual friendship with another girl called Eliza. Franzen is interested in the intensity of friendship which can equal that of marriage. Eliza, a complicated drug addict, has a rock-musician boyfriend called Richard. …

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