The Problem with Patty Berglund

I’ve been audiobooking Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s wordy, sometimes wavering over into verbose territory, but very insightful. He very accurately captures a lot of the anxieties, motivations, and emotions that many people living in the early aughts, late nineties experienced as they got older in America. He talks a lot about the “competitive” parts of life, and reminds you frequently (in various and, often enough, subtle ways) of his belief that this competitive type of life will eventually lead you to problems with how you view yourself, the rest of the world, and the people who inhabit it. There is, however, one big issue I take with the book.

For a notable portion of it, you are reading the autobiography of one of Franzen’s main characters. Patty Berglund (née Emerson), the Westchester-born middle child of a wealthy family of note in the local sect of the Democratic party who raises their other daughters to view going into the arts as morally superior to other forms of work, is raped as a young girl but strongly, subtly, urged not to publicly accuse the rapist due to the political friendliness between their two families. Patty flees to Minnesota for college and meets two slightly older boys, Richard (who she thinks is “sexy” because he, like her in her view, is not a good person) and Walter (who she eventually marries).

Years later (after raising two children with Walter and falling in and out of alcoholism), Patty’s psychologist recommends she write an autobiography. This autobiography is where the reader learns much of the information about Patty’s life. It is impeccably well written and, critically, extremely self-aware. It is this self-awareness with which there are issues.

Patty is clearly an intelligent if occasionally volatile person, but the autobiography is written with such a sharp, objective eye that it is extremely unlikely to be the product of Patty herself. Were she a real (average) person who doesn’t write for The New Yorker, Patty likely would’ve had some of the perspective given to her by Franzen, but it is unlikely that she would have had the insight necessary to so delicately put it into words. It is difficult to believe that a housewife with no prior experience writing would be able to define her decades-spanning internal struggle between following what she believed to be the path of a “good person” with Walter and secretly wanting to be the opposite, however she defined it at a given moment.

I’m not through with Freedom yet, and I will follow this up with an edit if my feelings change but, at this point, the believability factor isn’t quite there when it comes to Patty Berglund.