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Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose: The Book Group Guide to the new Franzen novel

So ladies...do you ever have regrets about breaking up with the bad-boy  rock star you met just after college?  Are you rethinking your marriage to the corporate attorney?

Guys...are you frustrated that your wife  just doesn't get you? Have you found yourself dreaming about running off with that bright young twenty something Asian girl  with the perfect body that you met at the Sierra Club fundraiser?  (You were writing a big check) Are you worried that you might not be able to keep up with her on hikes?

Those are my first two questions for a book discussion of Freedom--Jonathan Franzen's fourth (post 9/11) novel of family angst--featuring the troubled family and friends of  Minnesota suburbanites Walter and Patty Berglund.

Why read and discuss Freedom? Well for one thing, it is about you and everyone you know. I realize that I am taking some liberties here with the Red Room demographic. But I'll bet that at least fifty percent of  you are writers and/or readers, who have been to college, lived in more than one American city, seen a shrink for depression, felt either amazingly proud or amazingly disappointed in their children (maybe both) and/or wondered just  today if you should have chosen a different path in life.

And if that's not demographic enough for you here's how MacMillan describes the protagonists of Freedom:                                                                                                                               

Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St Paul--the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation.

Okay. Show of hands.

How many of you have been to Whole Foods this week?

How many are gentrifying even as you read this blog?

How many are hands on parents or would like to be if your kids could stand still long enough?

Okay--enough with the questions.

As a book group leader, I am compelled to GIVE EXAMPLES.

Here are the women of Freedom.  See if they remind you of you or anyone you know.

Patty Berglund is an upper middle class housewife who spends most of the book holed up drinking in the smallest room of her huge designer house, sorry that her kids have grown up and moved away, and unable to find anything meaningful to do with her life--except sleep with her husband's best friend.

Connie is the  devoted young girlfriend of Patty's outgoing, confident son Joey.  Patty doesn't like Connie because she thinks that Connie is white trash. Connie goes to college briefly because Joey asks her to-- hoping it will make her a more interesting person, and distract her while he cheats on her. But since Connie does not have the grades for Joey's college and can't be where he is, she drops out and works as a waitress. Most of the time, Connie sits around waiting for Joey to come home from college, or from work, or from anywhere else he would rather be--and for at least half the novel, Joey would rather be anywhere else. At one point Franzen likens her to a hibernating fish, who comes to life only when Joey is around.

Twenty-something Lolita---ooops, Lalitha--of Indian/Asian descent, is the only woman with career ambition--though of course, Walter Bergland is the man who gets her the job at his environmental nonprofit because he wants to sleep with her.  Lalitha is half Walter's age and has sex with him at least once a day. Alas, she  is soooo driven, that she drives the van too fast on her way to the next environmental gig--with tragic results.

Mind you, the men are passive agressive too. But they have much more interesting jobs. Walter is a corporate attorney for 3M, who later turns his attention to saving birds...and zero population growth. Richard katz is a rock star who turns to high-end residential  roof deck construction when he is burned out from being a rock star. Wherever he goes, women want to sleep with him--even though he is not all that good looking, and he spends no time on wooing. Oh I forgot--the lack of interest...no time to woo thing--chicks dig that.


Did I mention that neither of these guys are ever content with their interesting well paying jobs-and wonder a lot if they have sold out and/or if their true voices have been stifled?


Why else read and discuss Freedom at book group? 

Well.... because everyone else is.  

This month Freedom  knocked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo off the bestseller list and become an Oprah pick. The book was also the catalyst that placed  Franzen on the cover of Time Magazine (August 12 2010)--an issue in which interviewer Lev Grossman (a fine writer in his own right) tracks Franzen down on a beach near Santa Cruz, and hangs out with him as they watch otters in the surf.  In the midst of their conversation, Grossman declares Franzen to be "one of  contemporary fiction's great populists and a key ally of the beleagured modern reader."

Read the whole damn thing here:


If you are a novelist, eat your heart out.

If you are a reader--approach with a grain of skepticism.

Ask yourself: As a reader, am I truly beleagured and in need of allies like Franzen?

Aha.... Now I have book group questions number  five, six and seven.

Do you think  that Jonathan Franzen is one of contemporary fiction's great populists?

 Why or why not?

And if not Franzen, who is contemporary fiction's great populist?

(I am voting for Stephen King)

Oh and question eight....

Do you think that this book would have been better if it had featured a kickass heroine with a dragon tattoo?

Because, just between us, about half way through the book, I  yearned for Swedish punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, of the Stieg Larrson trilogy, to show up and avenge us all. 

Instead, here's Patty musing about her sex life with husband Walter and rock star Richard.

"Every time Patty lay by herself after sex, she sank down into sadness and lonliness, because Richard was always going to be Richard, whereas, with Walter, there had always been the possiblity , however, faint and however slow in its realization, that their story would change and deepen."

We are up to page 509 here--Franzen is not kidding about the faint and slow realization.

But that's sorta like the life of you and  me and everyone you  know.  With or without therapy it often takes us a long time to get to the truths that have been staring us in the face.  At age 52, I have reached page 509 in many of my friends lives and they in mine.

Would I have a better life if I had gone to NYU rather than State University of New York at-BInghamton?

Would my husband George have had a better life if he had gone to Stanford rather than Rutgers Newark?

And do my parents really love my sister more than me?

If you know us, you have had to listen to these self indulgent rants. But enough about us.......

I leave you with a few more book group questions:

Is Freedom the Great American Novel that the critics say it is?

Can Franzen be compared to Charles Dickens?

Will we be taking about this book ten years from now?

Will we be talking about this book two years from now?

Are there going to be Sparknotes?

Is Franzen going to appear on the Oprah show?

Will Oprah's book group visit Hibbing, Minnesota, hometown of Walter Berglund and Bob Dylan?

Don't ask me. Ask your book discussion group.

And, of course, feel free to post reactions here.

P.S. Since posting this morning, my friend Doug Kalish suggested that I check out the David Brooks review in yesterday;s New York Times, which also links to a review in The Atlantic Magazine (October issue).  If you are hosting a book group, print them out or e-mail them to share:


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"God created man because he loves stories" --Eli Weisel