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`The country was finally moving on, finally taking history in its hands again,..'
on March 19, 2011
This is a story about family - about the presence and absence of relationships (both functional and dysfunctional) - set in modern America, and told from a number of different perspectives. The novel opens with an historic view of the Berglund family seen from the perspective of their neighbours in St Paul, Minnesota. The Berglunds (husband Walter, wife Patty, and children Jessica and Joey), are a liberal middle-class family who were part of the gentrification of urban St Paul. Patty was a homemaker, and an ideal neighbour, Walter was an environmentally conscious lawyer. On the face of it, an ideal family but a closer look at the Berglund's lives reveals that all is not as it seems. Patty's much loved son Joey becomes involved with a neighbour's daughter, Connie, and moves in with Connie and her mother. Why has this happened? Who are the Berglunds, really, and where do they come from and what do they stand for? What are they seeking? Why do the family relocate to Washington DC, and leave the home that they have worked on for years?
`Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.'
The next part of the story is an unpublished autobiography composed by Patty Berglund at the suggestion of her therapist. In this, we learn of Patty's youth as a star basketball player and of events in her past. Of how she meets an attractive musician named Richard Katz, and his room-mate Walter Berglund, and of the events that follow in her life.
The novel then moves to New York in 2004 and is seen through the rotating third-person perspectives of Richard, Joey and Walter. Their overlapping narratives take us through much of the novel, until an addendum to Patty's autobiography brings us to 2010 and almost to the end of the story.
The structure of the novel works well to convey the themes of the novel, but summarising the story in more detail would diminish the impact of reading it. An element of surprise is needed in order to appreciate the story as it unfolds. Experiencing some of the same scenes form different perspectives enables us to see varying levels of significance, especially where one character's story is interrupted at a critical point, and another character's story begins.
And the characters? While the major characters are well-defined and generally consistent with the stereotypes they represent (I especially enjoyed Joey) I found Patty, frustrating and not particularly likeable or interesting. And because so much of the book is about Patty, this impacted on my overall enjoyment.
I admired the writing in this novel. I appreciated the focus on both the way in which the nature of American society is evolving, as well as the way in which changing (self-perpetuating but frequently circular) relationships in families define relative constructs of freedom. But the major theme is about freedom: how do we define it, and how will we recognise it? Is it tangible or intangible; relative or absolute; singular or collective? What is freedom, if we don't (or can't) use it? What is the purpose of being free if we can't enjoy it?
It's possible to just read and enjoy this book, but there's plenty of food for further thought for those so inclined.