Awful, Horrible, Despicable Characters and the Readers Who Love Them by Rebecca

Okay, so let’s agree right now that Jonathan Franzen needs no more press. Long before Freedom’s release date, the novel’s buzz was met with a feminist critique of the New York Times’ Book Review, lead by novelists Jodi Piccoult and Jennifer Weiner. Now, I understand that Oprah Winfrey has selected Freedom as her pick for the final season’s book club. Reviewers—for the most part—have been falling over each other to come up with phrases that will fully embody the wonder that is Freedom. The hyperbole is getting a little thick with words like indelible, sweeping, masterpiece, and, of course, tour de force. I have a tendency—not always a helpful one—to immediately dislike anything that has received so much praise, but I will freely and enthusiastically admit that Freedom lives up to its hype.

In thinking about why I loved Freedom so much, it comes back to the characters that Franzen so deftly created. Last weekend I attended the Celebration of Books and heard Michael Cunningham , Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, speak about writing fiction. He described how good writing may have a moral or political underpinning, but it should not seek to moralize. He continued by explaining how writers, in a sense, serve as their characters’ defense attorneys. They attempt to understand a character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings without judgment. A writer’s job is to present the character in his or her entirety; the reader should be allowed the experience of examination and evaluation. Well-written characters may infuriate, but they also should challenge.

I’ve never been a reader that has to like a character to like a book. In fact, it is often books with characters that I dislike that I remember the most. Taking a deep look inside the mind of a person with whom we have profound differences isn’t something we do a lot in our culture. We tend to travel in circles of friends with the same political views, educational backgrounds, socioeconomic status, even reading tastes. Our national dialogue is more like Monday Night Smackdown than an Open Space meeting. Fiction allows us to break away from the sound bites for a bit and delve beneath the surface. Reading helps us to develop empathy for those who are different.

In Freedom, Franzen moves from stereotypes to the pain, failures, hopes and humanity of his characters. Patti Berglund is a character with moments of selfishness, unrelenting need, and the self loathing and pity that can only come with extreme privilege. I really hated her. But, she was also vulnerable, fragile, and frightened. I kind of liked her. Or, maybe I didn’t like her, but I felt for her. She became human to me. I might not want to have lunch with Patti, but I don’t want her to suffer a slow death. And, maybe wishing others a happier, healthier existence isn’t such a bad trait to develop.

Here are some other books that have memorable, if challenging, characters. While these novels have different plots, they all weave their stories around the inner lives of their characters. These books have the same “feel” to me as Freedom had, too—blending moments of heart break with those of darkly humorous insights.

The Slap by Christof Tsiolkas

Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld


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