If you're looking for another rave review of this novel, look just about anywhere else, starting with the New York Times Book Review, or Time magazine with Franzen on the cover as "Great American Novelist." The hype by now is feeding on itself, but I began reading an advance copy of this novel months ago, before all this started. I was impressed, but not excited by what I read.
It's pretty clear however that Franzen has done something special. It's an intelligent contemporary story in colloquial prose with almost no physical description -- the landscapes he limns are mostly internal. Except for some slack sections, it's lean -- even tracking the characters' rapid changes of consciousness is done economically. The characters are familiar yet individual, and believable. The dialogue is convincing and even smart without being overtly witty. Readers -- especially educated white urban/suburban ones -- will find a lot that rings true.
This story of the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund, their children and lovers, set mostly in the Shrub years, is on familiar ground for a realistic novel. Freedom excels in this genre. It's an entertaining read, there's political and social context and there are levels beyond the obvious. But for me it lacks the magic of, say, Tolstoy (the comparison seems invited not just by reviews but by several War and Peace references in the novel.) I agree with Laura Miller at Salon: This is more Trollope, more The Way We Live Now, though perhaps less obviously satiric.
The specific characters have intriguing new twists: Patty is an ex-athlete, Walter an angry environmentalist, Richard an aging punk rocker. But the way the characters are delineated is too programmatic for my tastes -- we're mostly told in definite terms (usually psychological and genetic) why the characters are the way they are. That there are no grand passions is maybe part of the point, but there's also little mystery or ambiguity.
Maybe it's a cause for celebration that there's such buzz over a book that doesn't involve vampires, but the Time magazine implication that writers like Philip Pullman, Kim Stanley Robinson and even J. K. Rowling aren't writing literature because they don't adhere to this kind of contemporary realism is shortsighted. Their deep popularity suggests there's something missing in this genre.
I'm guessing that some A-list actresses are moving heaven and Hollywood to play Patty, so the hype isn't over. But is this already the Great American Novel? Time will tell -- though it's worth mentioning that the first reviews and early sales for The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick were terrible. Is Franzen our greatest American novelist? Not while Thomas Pynchon is alive, for one.