What if, long after the time when you could reasonably consider yourself young, you came to discover that you had lived the wrong kind of life? That you had married the wrong person, worked at the wrong job, or raised your kids the wrong way? It’s probably fair to say that this realization would constitute a kind of living nightmare.
And yet, if freedom exists and we are all ultimately responsible for the choices we make, there is a very realistic chance that such a nightmare could become real. After all, we can’t expect every free person to make all the right decisions all of the time. What happens when free individuals make the wrong choices?
This is the question Jonathan Franzen explores in his new novel, Freedom, his long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections. Like that novel, this one is about a Midwestern family that’s trying to flee the Midwest. When we are introduced to the Berglunds—Walter and Patty—they are a Rockwellesque family living in suburban St. Paul. They are early pioneers in the gentrification process, and a quiet mix of acceptable liberalism (Walter’s an environmentalist who works for the Nature Conservancy) and old-fashioned family values (rather than working, Patty stays home and bakes cookies for the neighborhood).
But, like all Rockwellian veneers, there are many things beneath the surface, and they grow to undermine the family’s suburban splendor. Joey, one of the Berglunds’ perfect children, begins to terrorize his parents with placid rebellion, and this rebellion gradually pulls at the seams of their marriage. Patty, a former college athlete, viewed her family and her house and her life as primarily an extension of the competition she always thrived on while growing up. Meanwhile, Walter’s devotion to Patty is tinged with the worry that he was always his wife’s second choice; he is also concerned that his suburban life represents a betrayal of his political and environmental ideals. Inevitably, these anxieties over whether they’ve chosen the right kind of life manifest themselves in Walter and Patty’s marriage. At the end of the novel’s opening chapter, one of the Berglunds’ neighbors speculates: “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.” Continue reading