"For sheer respite from herself, she picked up War and Peace and read for a long time." Long before most readers reach this sentence on page 166 of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, they will have figured out that the author is playing the 19th-century game and that Tolstoy's study of the tergiversations between men and women is very much in his mind.
Franzen fesses up in the next paragraph as Patty Berglund "wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn't reached those pages in which Natasha Rostov, who was obviously meant for the goofy and good Pierre, falls in love with his great cool friend Prince Andrei".
Jonathan Franzen: Updike with a shot of Wolfe
The love-triangle is duplicated in Freedom by Patty and Walter Berglund and Walter's cool friend the guitarist Richard Katz. The triangle eats up most of the book, although we do also get some war (Iraq, mostly offstage).
The success nine years ago of Franzen's previous novel, The Corrections (Fourth Estate), surprised me a little. It was hailed by so many as the great American novel. A good read, but was Franzen as funny as Richard Dooling? As stylish as Tom Robbins? As perceptive as Tom Wolfe? As slick as Elmore Leonard? As mordant as Bruce Wagner? I didn't think so and his chapters set in post-Soviet Lithuania struck me as just a little bit lazy. I couldn't quite account for the book's ascent to the very pinnacle of American letters.
Freedom has been so heralded and is already so successful that any review seems futile, but it does largely live up to the hype. Franzen's dissection of American suburbia and campus life (the three protagonists all meet at university) is as good as it gets — funny, astute, carefully observed, beautifully polished, Updike with a shot of Wolfe. The only reservation I'd have is the length. At nearly 600 pages, almost everything seems to happen in real time and gifted though Franzen is at dialogue, some of the conversations could have been shorter.
Furthermore, you have to know your rock music to understand why Patty shouldn't like The Eagles and why she hasn't heard of Magazine. In Richard Katz, Franzen has created one of the best musicians in fiction, partly because the villains are usually more appealing (Katz's dyspeptic interview with one of his fans is probably the interview most musicians would like to give, but don't dare to — possibly inspired by the memorable Sid Vicious profile where he announced he'd like to give everyone "a good kicking"). Franzen also wisely goes easy on NME-style terminology of guitar riffs and song qualities (Katz spends most of his time doing building work or philandering).