I did enjoy reading Freedom, my first encounter with a novelist about whom I have heard so many raves. It is a well-woven story, featuring moments of sublime beauty, remarkable turns of phrase, and OMG-did-I-really-just-laugh-at-that humor. Its principal characters are mostly intolerable upper-middle-class white folks, but the story through which they move overcomes that handicap, at least for a fan of character-driven fiction.
I also found quite a bit to kvetch about, although not nearly as much as Shivani did.
Here are the impressions of Freedom that I posted in the form of a three-star-out-of-five "review" on Goodreads:
1. Yes, there's some chillingly terrific writing, but most of the breath-taking turns of phrase are concentrated in the first half. Franzen spends the second half in the unpleasant business of dragging his characters through various emotional torments, in order to bring them to some kind of redemption, and there's little space left for fancy verbiage.
2. Yes, the characters are well developed—perhaps a little too well. Franzen gives us so much exhaustive detail on what makes the major characters tick that it doesn't leave room for the reader to fill in the blanks.
3. Yes, the major characters (all the Berglunds, Richard Katz, Connie Monaghan, Lalitha yeah-I've-forgotten-her-last-name) spend most of the story inviting the reader's scorn, despite which the story remains compelling enough to continue reading. In other Goodreads reviews, much has been made of hating caustically depressive Patty, terminally disappointed-in-humanity Walter, rebelliously ungrateful Joey, selfish/self-destructive Richard, et al. It's not revealing too much to say that these characters are rounder than reviewers give them credit for; they do become less irritating as the years pass.
4. What I enjoyed most: that these well-drawn characters interact not only with each other, but with world events. We see through these characters the effects that events such as 9/11, the Second Gulf War, and the mid-2000's housing bubble had those who lived through those events. Walter knows at a profound level how profoundly fucked-up the world is, and who is primarily responsible for its fucked-upness; this knowledge makes him difficult to relate to, unless the reader is possessed of some of the same pathologies (yeah, I'll drink to that). Also, the depiction of alternative culture among collegiate youth in the late 1970s/early 1980s, seen through non-alternative Patty Emerson's eyes, is eerily similar to what I remember of that time: Franzen gets the interplay of academics, athletics, drugs, music, and naive liberal politics so correct.
5. What I enjoyed least: scenes that go on far too long; deep discussions of characters' motivations and the life events that lead them to behave as they do; and the in medias res structure of individual sections that rely heavily on flashbacks, and even flashbacks within flashbacks, that make it difficult to keep track of what year we're in. There's nothing wrong with going non-linear, but IMHO Franzen didn't quite pull it off.