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Freedom

Jonathan Franzen’s latest is already the year’s biggest novel.

By Yvonne Zipp / September 1, 2010

Freedom By Jonathan Franzen Farrar, Straus and Giroux 576 pp., $28

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For a book that just came out Tuesday, Freedom has been an inescapable force this summer. Advance reviews have declared it the book of the century (even though we’re only 10 years into it). Praise has ranged from Time magazine, who plastered author Jonathan Franzen on its cover with the headline “Great American Novelist,” to The New York Times (The Book’s So Nice, We Reviewed It Twice). President Obama even chose it as his beach reading on Martha’s Vineyard.

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The drumbeat of hype has been so relentless that it has already sparked a backlash, with bestselling authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner – who feel they deserve a bit of the ink splashed on Franzen – arguing that the Times offers such accolades mostly to white males living in New York. Weiner’s Twitter hashtag, Franzenfreude, is pretty funny, but the evidence in this case isn’t really there. Oh sure, books that attract a large female audience are too often unfairly dismissed. But Franzen hasn’t gotten a free pass from the Times. In fact, he reportedly called Pulitzer-winning Times reviewer Michiko Kakuatani “the stupidest woman in New York” when she had the nerve not to like his 2006 memoir, “The Discomfort Zone.”

I shall henceforth be known as the dumbest woman in Kalamazoo.

There’s no question that “Freedom” is going to be the book for the literary cognoscenti this fall. It’s 576 pages of the-way-we-lived-recently (before the recession offered some serious focus for our self-pity). The brilliant writing and caustic wit that earned Franzen a National Book Award in 2001 is in ample evidence, as is his willingness to go big or go home. But so is the contempt that ultimately put me off his last novel, “The Corrections.” The pages are coated with a film of disdain so thick it almost comes off on your hands.

“Freedom” is the story of Walter and Patty Berglund, a liberal, college-educated couple with two children and an old Victorian in St. Paul they restored themselves. Walter, whose defining characteristic is his niceness, works for 3M and then The Nature Conservancy, while Patty, a ponytailed former athlete, devotes herself to being the perfect mom and neighbor with the same zeal she used to bring to her jump shot. Despite Minnesota winters, they seem to have a pretty good life, before, as recounted with glee by their jealous neighbors in the rather fabulous opening section, it all goes very wrong. (If this section seems familiar, it’s because it ran in The New Yorker.)

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