Franzen's artfully structured novel traces the varying fortunes of the Berglund's, a Midwestern family adrift in 21st century America. Be cautioned, his characters are unlikable. Neither are they dull. Franzen's hard on them and lets the reader into deepest parts of their psyches.
Walter Berglund, the family's patriarch, works as a lawyer in Minneapolis. He gave up his film making aspirations in favor of the law. Walter wants to educate the masses on overpopulation and raise the perfect family. His wife Patty, former basketball star at the University of Minnesota, settles uneasily into her role as wife and mother.
I found Patty to be the most sympathetic character. On the surface she is a typical suburban wife you see jogging on the sidewalk. Through flashbacks, the reader learns about the unspoken pressures placed on her, usually by the men in her life. Her choices and actions drive much of the novel.
As liberal parents Walter and Patty are troubled by their son Joey, who loves capitalism with fervent passion. Joey's qualities are like the boomer's worst nightmare of a millennial: a freakish confidence, tech savvy, in love with money, basically a smug asshole. He makes a fortune though selling defective equipment to the army, but he made a profit and that's all that matters. Right?
Richard Katz, Walter's best friend from college, is a middling punk rocker who finally hits the big time in the 2000s. Richard serves as Franzen's sardonic mouthpiece on American pop culture. Of all the characters, I found Walter the most interesting, but hardly sympathetic. Possibly Franzen's alter ego? Don't miss the passage when Richard attends an Indie Rock concert- which he views as an orgy of young white conformity, united by their passionate (and sophisticated) consumerism and ironic detachment about it all.
Ideas, specifically ideas about freedom, are the crucial theme. How should one take advantage of their freedom? Such dilemmas can wreak havoc, one at the heart of the American experience I suppose? What happens when your own idea of freedom clashes with others ideas of freedom? It never ends well. Sections dealing with fracking, overpopulation, the war in Iraq, terrorism all tie into the FREEDOM theme.
Franzen paints wonderful portraits. He's often criticized for writing only about rich white people (yuppies). I get it, his Midwest is foreign to my own experience. But whether you're writing about Chinese peasants in the 17th century, Welsh coal miners in the 1930s, or Brazilian truck drivers in the 1950s - well drawn characters and a story can make all the difference - regardless of class and social setting.
To be honest, I probably skimmed the last 100 pages, I'd had enough of the Berglunds by that point.