A wise aunt recently shared with me her mantra for happy families: the acceptance that there are only two things you can give your grownup children – unconditional love and freedom. The rules, the values, and the corrections taught by parents must be internalised by this stage, and not vocalised.

As with many mantras that sound simple yet offer an essential truth of contemporary life, this one is anything but easy to practice. It is the failure to understand this mantra that results in the hurt experienced by many central characters in Jonathan Franzen’s dazzling new novel Freedom.

The early part of the Berglunds’ 20-year stint there sees them as the perfect Norman Rockwell family; successful, seemingly happy, well-intentioned and just worthy enough not to have real friends among their neighbours.

Over the course of its 562 pages, Freedom reads as a forensic examination of the disintegration of baby boomers forced to inhabit the disappointing skins of middle age in contemporary America. Which begs the question: why are we interested in the novel in India?          In part, it’s because the much-debated idea of “freedom” is universal, and has reference points with middle-class societies in all countries with a reasonable degree of social stability. The freedom attained upon becoming a sovereign country is much more easily defined than the freedom pursued by the now-free middle-class. The latter freedom seems unable to provide the contentment we thought it would bring – whether due to our inherent competitiveness, or to the grass-is-greener syndrome, or to human selfishness. Whatever the reasons, the Berglunds invite us to examine them.

Gorgeous prose  

Also, one cannot deny the novel’s gorgeous prose, a breath-taking display of the novelist’s art. Patty is one of the more knotty aspects of this sprawling examination of individual, familial and social issues. Both men in her life talk of her attractive qualities but in her interactions with them, we only see a woman who is becoming increasingly depressed and unhinged.

Franzen took nine years to write Freedom. But unlike multimillion-dollar films in which you can’t figure where the money went, here you absolutely know how and where the nine years were spent; it’s visible in every line. Like me, you may not like the people being written about, but they are written up in prose so meticulously crafted, it’s to be lingered over.

While Freedom has its flaws, the very fact that we wind up thinking so intricately about the people and issues in it is a testament to its quality. It’s not a book you would want to speed-read because much of its appeal lies in the detailed writing; the medium is — a substantial part of — the message.