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Books: Oprah and Franzen’s “Freedom”

Never mind Oprah’s endorsement: buy, borrow, beg, steal Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” I have a pre-Oprah copy that’s making its way through my household; my teenage son is reading it, my husband has next dibs, my college-age son is visiting this weekend. We’ll have to hide it from him.

Does it matter that it’s become an Oprah pick? Does anyone care about Oprah anymore? She got a lot of people reading and I appreciated her choices back when she trumpeted obscure American authors, catapulting them to wealth and fame. But I laughed out loud when she recommended Faulkner’s “The Sound & The Fury.” I love Faulkner, and I like difficult reads, but that one is nearly impenetrable. Oprah had to post a “how to” for that book. “If you’re wrestling with one section, ‘fast forward’ to another!”

With Franzen’s “Freedom” I wanted to rewind, read slowly, linger in, never leave the world he created. His characters are so real I felt like they could get up off the page and walk out of the room — after first issuing an especially pithy assault on the size of one’s house or the federal government’s mismanagement.

Franzen’s characters are smart, funny and surprising. They share a core goodness but struggle with this basic question: how to live?

Patty is a basketball star at the University of Minnesota. Date raped during high school, she’s careful with alcohol and her surroundings. A poet friend, Eliza, is her biggest fan. Eliza is sleeping with Richard Katz, a cool musician. Richard’s roommate and best friend is the kindly Walter Berglund, a scholarship student who wins Patty over with devotion, a poinsettia, and his proximity to Richard Katz.

Patty- Walter-Richard. That triangle is the story’s engine. Patty marries Walter, Walter adores Patty, Patty never gets over Richard. She drinks too much, she berates the neighbors, and she’s so overbearing with son Joey he moves in with the family next door.

Patty’s seduction of Richard, years later, propels the second half of the book. Walter isn’t much better, falling for his ultra-calm assistant Lalitha, his sidekick in the battle to provide a refuge for warblers in coal country.

This is comedy, a satire. But there is great wisdom in these characters. Their struggles are wrenching. Quibbles? I had a few. Lalitha and other minor characters seem oddly hollow. I felt nothing when one of them died.

I loved Franzen’s last book, “The Corrections.” This is better, more fluid. A story of three flawed people whose lives come together, fall apart, regroup. Messily, they figure out how to live.

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