"Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen may turn out to be one of those books that you simply have to read. You have to read it because you'll need to know which camp you're going to join. Are you going to be among those who love to hate Jonathan Franzen or those who hate to love him?
Franzen – whom many have viewed (perhaps unfairly) as a famously prickly writer ever since his scuffle with Oprah – has already inspired a new vocabulary word: "Franzenfreude," which refers to the pain some readers feel in hearing Franzen too highly praised. And praised he has been (appearing recently on the cover of Time magazine with the tag line "Great American Novelist") – even by those sometimes reluctant to do so.
Washington Post critic Ron Charles – who calls the book "brilliant, maddening" – notes that "[t]he point to remember is that 'Freedom' is big enough and thoughtful enough to engage and irritate an enormous number of readers."
So far, however, the critics seem to have been more engaged than irritated. Here's a sampling of what's been written about "Freedom" so far:
The New York Times: "Mr. Franzen has written his most deeply felt novel yet – a novel that turns out to be both a compelling biography of a dysfunctional family and an indelible portrait of our times."
Los Angeles Times: "Franzen pulls it off – as he pulls off nearly everything in this rich and nuanced novel."
Newsday: Dan Cryer calls "Freedom" "bruising, but exhilarating reading," ultimately declaring, "Long-winded and swaggering, angry and hectoring, but undeniably absorbing, even mesmerizing, 'Freedom' is a book you want to get lost in, argue with and, finally, just plain enjoy."
Entertainment Weekly: " 'Freedom' isn't flawless.... But this is a deep dive into a fascinating family that feels very real, and fully grounded in our time." Grade: A-
Salon: " 'Freedom' is a complexly layered, richly imagined domestic tale about personal responsibility that dares to challenge the long-term global ramifications of our most private choices."
Cleveland Plain Dealer: Karen Long objects to Franzen's "unmitigated misanthropy," writing, "He doesn't countenance altruism; he insists on human rancidness." Yet she also calls the book "marvelous, maddening," adding, "This is fabulous stuff."
Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal: Mike Fisher writes, " 'Freedom' is even better than its predecessor ['The Corrections']," concluding that, "[t]he opening to 'Freedom' is Franzen's wry goodbye to the smart-aleck novelist he once was, while the remainder of the novel confirms what a literary giant he has since become."
Chicago Sun-Times: Contemporary fiction could use more of both the skill of Franzen the ambition of "Freedom," admits Mark Athitakis. But, he adds, "if Franzen can only make his concerns seem considered and thought-about, not deeply felt, that's his damn problem, not ours."
Dallas Morning News: " 'Freedom' is a fascinating, multigenerational family saga that, more gracefully than 'The Corrections,' walks the line between social satire and uncompromising realism, casting a cold eye on an America that is by turns appalling and inspiring."
Miami Herald: "Freedom" is "political and personal, surprisingly funny at times and devastatingly insightful, a grand examination of what's gone badly wrong on every level of contemporary life, from music ... to mountaintop-removal mining."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "No novel is perfect," writes Bob Hoover, who finds "a few sour notes" in "Freedom." "But like his characters," Hoover concludes, "these flaws are part of the process of Mr. Franzen's intense concerns for what make us human."
Monitor book critic Yvonne Zipp's review of "Freedom" will appear tomorrow.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.