FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen [Book 34 of 2010]

Have you heard of this book FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen? Sadly, it hasn’t gotten very much coverage, but I decided to do the author a favor and talk about it on this blog anyway. It’s just so sad when good books don’t get the attention they deserve.

Why I Decided to Read It: Seriously though, everyone’s been talking about this novel. Franzen was on the cover of TIME . The NYT was brought to task for not reviewing more women because of how much they liked this book. It’s an Oprah Book Club pick. I actually had quite a few other reasons to read this novel. 1) As a reader I like to read what the public is reading, just to see what all the excitement is about. I hate feeling left out of a conversation. 2) I never read THE CORRECTIONS, so I felt like I owed the author one. 3) As someone working on her second novel, I’ve become obsessed with non-debuts as of late. This is Franzen’s fourth and reportedly best novel, which really inspires me.

What Makes It Different: This is basically a domestic drama written by a man. Except it’s really, really well-written. At one point I realized that this story could be summed up as Family Ties without the unnecessary youngest third sibling (sorry, Tina Yothers) and a Mallory who wasn’t stupid.

What I Loved: Well, what sets this apart from other domestic dramas is that it incorporates a lot of political and philosophical ideas that you’re not likely to find in a many other domestic drama novels, and it does so, without turning the novel into a rambling mess. Also, if you thought Franzen spent the majority of the last nine years between novels procrastinating, you would be wrong. You can tell that a lot of work went into this book, the story is just super-compelling. And you know what, a dramatic version of Family Ties with a smart Mallory is pretty cool. I loved Family Ties, and in many ways I felt that I got the closure that I never got with the show by reading this book.

What I Didn’t Like: I don’t want to be redundant here, but yes, like many other reviewers, I could see the man writing the parts that are supposed to be from a SAHM’s POV. I didn’t care, but yes, it was heavy-duty-awards-shut-out noticeable. Also, I felt beyond meh about the cover. It was way cooler when Cintra Wilson’s COLORS INSULTING TO NATURE did this … five years ago.

Writing Lessons Learned:

Really Good Writing: It was hard to narrow my list down to three, because the writing was so good. Franzen both breaks and keeps rules. And I think this is a great touchstone book on craft for writers in general — especially writers who find themselves tempted to use exclamation marks. Franzen does a very good job with his. Reading this made me wonder what I could write if I had the desire, attention span, and financial situation to spend almost a decade with the same novel. Ah well, we’ll never know the answer to that question; I assure you.

Unlikeable Characters Are More Interesting: Reading FREEDOM solved a mystery I’d been mulling over since the beginning of the year. By far my favorite romantic read of 2010 has been FEMINISTA by Erica Kennedy, even though I found the main character rather unlikeable. While being similarly compelled by unlikeable people in Franzen’s novel, I realized that the reason I liked FEMINISTA so very much is simply that unlikeable characters are way more interesting that likeable ones. It’s kind of like the happy families vs. unhappy families dynamic in the beginning of ANNA KARENINA (which much like the CORRECTIONS, I haven’t read, have only heard way too much about). Anyway these characters are all really unlikeable in a good and compelling way. And the nicest characters are the most boring ones. It all made me realize anew how useless nice can be in good literature.

Go BIG: Some of the things I loved most about FREEDOM were the big ideas presented inside a little story. I think a lot of women writers talk about “not being able to get away with” going outside the cookie cutter definition of what a romantic drama is supposed to be. I’ve worried about that myself with my own writing, which doesn’t quite fit comfortably under any literary label — especially the book I’m working on now. But reading FREEDOM made me ask, Why not go BIG? If you have big ideas, why not put them in your novel as opposed to trying to color within the lines? Why do we consider this a privilege that can only be enjoyed by white males? This novel firmed up my resolve to take bigger risks as opposed to playing it safe for the rest of my career.

To Whom Would I Recommend This Book: Writers In General, Roya Hamadani, Kelly Lett, Amy Brown, Paul Seamus R, Amy Robinson, Jeff Rogers, Environmentalists

Click on the pic to buy the book!

Bt-dubs, know a lot of you are wondering about my thoughts on GETTING TO HAPPY by Ms. Terry McMillan. They’re coming, coincidentally (and by that, I mean not coincidentally at all) right before Ms. McMillan, Attica Locke, Dolen Perkins-Valdez and I take the stage together for the Circle of Sisters Book Club on Saturday Oct. 30 in NYC. Woo-hoo!