In Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom," Patty, a basketball star at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s, can't decide between a pair of Macalester College roommates. She has the hots for Richard, the misogynist singer/songwriter from New York, but eventually ends up marrying his best friend, Walter, the virtuous, nature-loving dweeb from the Iron Range.
As a young married couple, Patty and Walter Berglund buy a run-down Victorian in Ramsey Hill, raising their children, Jessica and Joey, amid a climate of gentrification. Everything goes along merrily enough -- Walter has an executive gig with the Nature Conservancy, Patty's a devoted mother and homemaker, and Richard visits every time his band plays in Minneapolis.
The first crack in the façade becomes apparent when teenage son Joey begins having sex with the working-class girl next door. Patty, whose emotional attachment to her son is inappropriate, feels spurned by Joey. Her graphic meltdown includes slashing the neighbor's truck tires. From there, the disintegration of the model family comes quickly.
"Freedom" is Franzen's first novel since his marvelously orchestrated domestic saga, "The Corrections," which won the 2001 National Book Award. The new novel shares the epic proportions of "The Corrections" -- it, too, weighs in at just under 600 pages -- if not its success.
Franzen remains a wonderful line-to-line writer. Roar-out-loud passages and acute perceptions abound. But "Freedom" is heavy slogging at times. Much of the novel is spent tracking and hyper-analyzing the behavior of the depressive Patty and her milquetoast husband. Some readers will have trouble taking these long-suffering characters as seriously as they take themselves.
Still, Patty is a character of consequence, a female Rabbit Angstrom, who can't figure out how to shepherd the competitive instincts that once made her a second-team All-American at Minnesota.
The looming question, early in the novel -- will Patty have extramarital sex with Richard? -- quickly shifts to when, leaving one to wonder which is more toxic, a long marriage devoid of passion or a single weekend of passionate infidelity. Ultimately, the novel's drama feels trumped up. This is middle-class dysfunction, after all. Plenty of our lives are messier.
Comic relief arrives when precocious Joey heads off to the University of Virginia, dedicated only to making money and getting laid. In these passages, the novel's most natural and free-wheeling, the author relaxes his controlling grip.
Franzen sketches in the Twin Cities of the '70s to '90s accurately enough, but the Cities come off a bit generic, without a particularly vivid sense of time or place.
The novel's Pleasantville ending seems more a formal exercise than an organic eventuality, given the chapters of woe and entrenched realism that precede it. Patty's leap from total despair to salvation, conveyed via summary, is too immaculate for my taste.
Bart Schneider's latest novel is "The Man in the Blizzard," set in St. Paul. He lives in Sonoma, Calif.