An epic family drama about the way we live now

By Thom Geier
Updated August 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jonathan Franzen doesn?t break any new ground with his long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections. Like that 2001 best-seller, Freedom centers on an upper-middle-class Midwestern family, shifting the point of view among several characters over decades. And Franzen intersperses the domestic drama with topical digressions: urban gentrification, Iraq-war profiteering, wildlife conservation.

Though the outline of Freedom may seem familiar, the particulars are unique. Patty and Walter Berglund meet at the University of Minnesota, settle in an initially run-down section of St. Paul, and raise two precocious kids. She?s a former student athlete rebelling against her politician mom back East; he?s a lawyer?turned?environmental advocate bristling at the legacy of his distant, alcoholic dad. Each has a charged relationship with Walter?s ex-roommate, alt-rock musician Richard Katz, but the pair?s biggest obstacle to happiness is each other—and themselves.

Franzen performs a kind of literary MRI on the marriage, micro-slicing its many nuances. He innately grasps how desires can shift in an instant, and how getting what we want can lead to disappointment or self-doubt. And he remains a keen observer of modern culture: At one point, Walter?s college-age daughter articulates an unlikely generational rift with her dad?s 27-year-old deputy (?When did you start going online?… There?s a big difference between high school and college?). Freedom isn?t flawless: Patty?s journal reads more like Franzen than his character, and he gets sidetracked by quirky tangents. But this is a deep dive into a fascinating family that feels very real, and fully grounded in our time. A?