Freedom, The President & A Bundt Cake
President Obama bought the new Franzen book Friday. I was comforted to know the Prez has good taste. Actually, I was delighted that the press called him a ‘book snob’.
My promotional people are truly doing some great work, I tell ya. Remind me to send them a bundt cake, would you?
This guy is a master at creating characters.
Which we knew before. The Corrections, of course. But now, thankfully, Franzen is back after a 10 year hiatus.
We meet Walter and Patty Berglund in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota in the late 80s. They’re affable, and seemingly happily married, blessed with two nice children.
But if the skies are sunny, the forecast looks heavy with storms. We don’t doubt for a moment that dysfunction lies ahead. After all, we have seen our author in action before.
In a slim 26 pages, we learn that their 16-year-old son Joey has moved into the neighbor next door’s house so he can sleep with his girlfriend who resides there. Conveniently, this also helps him to avoid his overbearing mother with a ridiculous lack of boundaries.
Franzen tells this story through two different lenses: (1) a third person narrator who watches Walter and Patty from afar as if a nosy neighbor and (2) a couple of meaty sections told in first person by Patty as her ‘autobiography’. Entitled aptly: “Mistakes Were Made”.
The sections told from Patty’s perspective were fantastic. Her voice was so strong and her self-awareness so high that you forgive her some of her faults. Well, kind of.
We follow Patty & Walter from the moment they meet, through their courtship in college and idyllic initial married years, to rough roads that lead to their demise. They are joined on this journey by an important third wheel, Walter’s best friend Richard Katz—an inspired but failing and then wildly successful musician.
This story is vast. I can’t do it justice with 562 pages covering 30 years.
But the plot isn’t the point. If that makes sense. You willingly follow along to understand the context which makes Walter and Patty the rich, flawed characters that they are.
It’s a love story, of sorts. Well, yes, it is a love story. But it’s complicated. It’s messy and it’s destructive and it’s sweet and it’s tender and it’s depressing and it’s flawed.
To give you a sense, these are the notes I had scribbled on a page I kept in the book:
- There is a general sense of being constantly dissatisfied.
- The desire for something you don’t have but the disappointment with what you do.
- Characters are so fragile. Though twisted, the characters often seem human and understandable. Flawed, but somehow noble.
- Battle lines between family members – Walter/Daughter and Patty/Son and then how roles are reversed.
- The clouded sense of boundaries in all relationships.
- The notion that we love for the wrong reasons.
So, um, you’re thinking love story, right?
It is. It is the fragility and complexity and messiness of real love. Deep love.
If I had read this book on an iPad, I could have searched for two words that appeared hundred of times in the book: competition and yep, freedom. Franzen weaves these two themes across the book continuously.
The first is competition in our human relationships. Walter competing with his friend Richard; Patty competing with her sisters, the neighbors, her son’s girlfriend; their children competing with one other. It is astounding how many references there is between how competition wreaks havoc in our families and on our love for one another.
And the second one, Freedom. Well, I think I need either a book group or just a bigger brain to sort out exactly what Franzen is saying about freedom. What I hear him saying is the freedoms that we have—so much choice!—ultimately leads us to bad decisions and can even, quite literally, make us miserable.
But that certainly doesn’t seem that I have connected the dots correctly. It’s not exactly uplifting, is it?
But seriously, people, who cares.
If you love fiction, well, skipping this story is not an option.
Deliciously good writing, fantastic characters, time suspending enjoyment.
You won’t like every part of the book. It’s not perfect. It strays at times and ludicrous behavior becomes the absurd.
But the writing. The writing.
Available in stores now.