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Originally published Saturday, September 11, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Book review

Novelist Jonathan Franzen hits it into the literary stratosphere with 'Freedom'

Jonathan Franzen hits it into the literary stratosphere with his new novel "Freedom." Franzen will discuss his work Tuesday at Seattle Arts & Lectures.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jonathan Franzen

The author of "Freedom" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday Seattle Arts & Lectures, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $15-$70 (206-621-2230 or www.lectures.org).

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'Freedom'

by Jonathan Franzen

Farrar Straus & Giroux, 562 pp., $28

With his stunning fourth novel, "Freedom," writer Jonathan Franzen ("The Twenty-Seventh City," "Strong Motion") is back in tiptop form after the slight letdown of "The Corrections."

Yes, yes, call me a crank, call me a contrarian, but Franzen's best-selling, prizewinning, Oprah-picked-and-discarded third novel didn't quite click for me the way his first two did.

Where "The Twenty-Seventh City" and "Strong Motion" had wild-card surreal elements threaded through them, "The Corrections" kept the action mostly earthbound and in the real. The book was smartly written and packed some emotional punch. But it lacked the crazy edge of its predecessors. And its designated satirical targets seemed all too easy for Franzen to skewer.

In "Freedom," the central characters, as flawed as they are, are fascinating in their self-denials and self-contradictions. And Franzen's treatment of them is anything but reductive.

"Freedom" tells the story of the Berglund family and its intimates over a 25-year period, dwelling in detail on the late 1970s, when Walter and Patty Berglund meet in college, and the first decade of the 21st century, when things start going wrong for them.

Patty, in college in Minnesota, is a basketball-scholarship girl on the run from her East Coast family with whom she scarcely communicates. Walter is the do-gooding son of a Minnesota family plagued by alcoholism, poverty and verbal abuse. Patty's ambition, once a knee injury rules out being a basketball pro, is to be a better parent than her own father and mother ever were. Walter's is to save the world from environmental depredations and — his particular pet peeve — population explosion.

We learn in the book's opening paragraph that Walter and Patty will eventually lose their way: "It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds."

With that dangled bait, Franzen lures the reader into a narrative as page-turning as any suspense thriller. It soon emerges there's a third party wedged in the Berglunds' relationship: charismatic musician Richard Katz, Walter's college roommate and rival. Walter may be nuts about Patty, but Patty is more smitten with Richard. As for Richard, he sees himself as Walter's protector — a role that from time to time entails sleeping with Walter's girlfriends, just to prove how wrong for him they are. In Patty, though, Richard sees someone just right for "the nicest guy in Minnesota." Spurning her advances, he practically steers her into Walter's arms.

Before long, Walter and Patty are satisfactorily married and raising two children — the hyper-responsible Jessica and the utterly spoiled Joey — in a gentrified neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn.

Still, the spark between Patty and Richard is never entirely snuffed out. Things get complicated when they have a fleeting chance to fan that spark into a flame — and more complicated still when Richard's success as an alt-country singer-songwriter spurs Walter to ramp up his own career ambitions.

Here's where the surreal twist in "Freedom" comes into play: Walter becomes so bent on success that he manages to convince himself that mountaintop removal in West Virginia for coal-mining purposes can be parlayed into an environmental victory for the endangered cerulean warbler.

The word "freedom" pops up at pivotal points in the book. But "How to Live?" would be just as apt a title for the novel, as Franzen does full, comic, penetrating, sympathetic justice to the choices and conundrums his characters face in both private and public life.

Throw in the indelible portrait of Bush-era early-21st-century that Franzen delivers while he's at it, and you have a book that is clearly the best of his career.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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