As for the comparisons to Tolstoy that were in the air a year ago... what were people thinking? After all, Tolstoy did write about an infidelity-racked marriage, so direct comparisons are possible. In the fascinatingly caddish betrayer with rare flashes of conscience role, the matchup is Richard Katz vs. Vronsky. No contest, really. There is no scene here to rival Vronsky's steeplechase on Frou-Frou. One gets the feeling Richard was supposed to be a swirling vortex of nihilistic energy, but he more often comes off as just a grouch. Moreover, his putative status as 80s indie rock cult figure is unpersuasive next to Jennifer Egan's much more knowing depiction of that scene in A Visit from the Goon Squad.
In the role of the devoted, conscientious, uncharismatic plodder occasionally capable of lashing out, we have Walter Berglund and Alexei Karenin. We can call it even, I suppose.
Then we have Anna herself and... Patty Berglund. Oy.
The best part of Freedom is the subplot with the Berglunds' son Joey, his doggedly (and doggily) devoted high school girlfriend Connie, and the dazzlingly well-connected rich girl who is the sister of his college roommate. Is it as rich as the Levin-Kitty subplot? Erm, no. But Franzen knows Joey to the bone, and everything about the character convinces.
Still -- if posterity ever wants to know how the white American professional class of the late 20th and early 21st century walked, talked, argued, and fought, what they read, watched, and listened to, they could hardly do better than to pick up Freedom. Franzen is not our Tolstoy, but he may well be our William Dean Howells.