For Christmas, I received an e-reader. I justified it as a practical, convenient way to keep up with the immense readings assigned in graduate school. It is, however, simply another medium in which to gratify my obsession. Before I left for my weeklong retreat to the Texas countryside, I uploaded several books I'd finally have the time and inclination to read. For an entire week, the everyday obligations and excuses would be as nonexistent as cell phone reception. I couldn't imagine anything better.
I was both interested in and skeptical of Freedom. The novel follows the Berglunds, a seemingly perfect "Whole Foods generation" family living in Minnesota. A series of puzzling actions by members of the Berglund family cause neighborhood curiousity and consternation. Why has Walter, passionate conservationist, taken a job with a coal company? How come the Berglunds' son has moved in with the Republican neighbors? As Patty Berglund, Walter's wife, has a meltdown visible to everyone in the neighborhood, we begin to see the story unfold.
Author Jonathan Franzen grew up in a town neighboring my own hometown. Local reading enthusiasts speculated that the Berglunds' neighborhood was based on Webster, a St. Louis suburb and Franzen's hometown. I am initially cautious of this slice of society: upper middle class families that tout their trendy reusable shopping bags and decry the rapid disappearance of some small animal of which no one had previously heard. I actually staged my first protest at the age of ten, speaking out at Kirkwood City Hall against developers who wanted to cut down the trees behind my elementary school. I agree with a lot of the reusable bag/disappearing animal ideals. However, I feel I often encounter an onslaught of Smug when embarking on conversations of that nature. I do not believe that Smugness is universal within environmental mindfulness, only prevalent enough to warrant the aforementioned caution.
Regardless, I soon found myself wholly immersed in the Berglund family. Each character is so flawed, so funny, and undeniably human. I felt as though I came to know the Berglunds. I instantly recall my mental image of each of them as I write this. My concern that this book was a preachy environmentalist platform melted away as I became engrossed in the multifaceted, fascinating family. As the chapters follow different characters at different time periods, we begin to know the Berglunds as a whole: from their minute irritations to their grand context. As opposed to a moral lecture, Walter's environmental obsession becomes both his savior and his greatest flaw. Rather than a lesson, this is who he is.
The title of the book is relevant on a multitude of levels, examining the nature of freedom in the emotional, interpersonal, familial, and environmental realms. It took on another level for me, as I read it tucked within a large expanse of the Texas Hill Country, sharing my skyline with some of the last remaining cowboys.