Review: The Free by Willy Vlautin

Posted February 10, 2014 by in Book Reviews / 12 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher / TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Free by Willy VlautinThe Free by Willy Vlautin
Published by Harper Perennial on February 4, 2014
Genres: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Source: the publisher / TLC Book Tours

Goodreads | Amazon

In his heartbreaking yet hopeful fourth novel, award-winning author Willy Vlautin demonstrates his extraordinary talent for illuminating the disquiet of modern American life, captured in the experiences of three memorable characters enduring a host of crises--financial, familial, and existential--and looking for meaning in distressing times.

(from the back cover)


Leroy is a young war veteran who hasn’t had a coherent thought and hasn’t been able to speak since receiving severe brain trauma while fighting in Iraq. He has been residing in a group home for eight years, existing but definitely not living. When he wakes up one night and realizes that he can actually think again, he finds this more unbearable than the alternative. Leroy retreats from the real world (again), using his love of science fiction and the memories of his girlfriend to enter a world inside his mind where he can be who he wants to be (again).

Freddie is one of Leroy’s caregivers in the group home. Freddie is close to absolute ruin and is just taking life one day at a time. His wife has left him, taking their two young daughters with her, and Freddie has been left to deal with tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills. He works two jobs and still can’t make ends meet. He doesn’t want to lose his house (the only good thing he has left), but he sees no other way to get out from under his mountain of debt. Then he agrees to do something that could help get him back on track financially, but could also mean losing everything if something goes wrong.

Pauline is a nurse who works night shift at a hospital and who takes care of her mentally ill father during the day. She’s a wonderful caregiver, but has had to give herself emotional blinders in order to deal with the suffering and loss she sees every day (not to mention the ups and downs of her father’s psyche and his treatment of her). When a teenage runaway named Jo is admitted to the hospital and put under Pauline’s care, Pauline finds she can’t continue to keep her emotions shut out anymore. She wants to help this girl in any way she can.

In The Free, Vlautin tackles issues that average Americans are dealing with on a daily basis: poor health insurance and insurmountable medical bills; jobs that don’t pay living wages; homelessness; mental illness; war and its effects on soldiers and their families; emotional detachment. Vlautin’s characters are going through some seriously depressing shit, and although I knew without a doubt that I wanted to read the book, I was also afraid that it would be depressing as hell. It wasn’t.

Vlautin is so good at writing about these issues without making them feel exceptional or fantastic. Leroy, Freddie, and Pauline are all just regular people going through things that lots of regular people in this country go through every day. And they’re saying to themselves, ‘Look, this is what I’m going through. This is what I’m trying to deal with. But I won’t let it ruin me completely. I won’t. I will cling to [this person] or [this idea], and it or they will get me through. One day at a time. I can do this.’ Even Leroy, who takes the most drastic measures out of desperation, finds some inner peace through the things and people he loves. So while The Free could have been a wholly dramatic, depressing experience, Vlautin kept it realistic by showing that small drops of hope here and there can still be found in a sea of despair, and can be used to survive some of the worst circumstances.

I am a little upset that one of the most important (to me) parts of the story is left unresolved, but other than that, The Free is a very good book. I had a hard time putting it down and I read it in about a day. Vlautin makes it so easy to sympathize with the characters and what they’re going through without becoming a depressed ball of sad. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good sob fest now and then, but sometimes it’s better to be able to really think about these things without the emotions taking over completely. And Vlautin gives Hope a chance to win out over Despair, which is something I always like to see.

I would recommend The Free to readers who enjoy good literary fiction about realistic characters living realistic lives.

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  • I’ve been nervous about picking this one up because it looked so sad, but after reading your review this morning, I’m feeling much better about it.

  • You’re sooooo right – it could have been a hugely depressing book, but it’s really much more normal crappy life that can be overcome kind of stuff. It’s a good one for people who aren’t afraid of depressing but hopeful types of reads.

  • I will be starting this next week and cannot wait to read it. It sounds incredible so far. I’m intrigued that you read it in a day – it must be really good!

  • When I got the email about this review I read the subject as “Free Willy” but that wasn’t right at all. Sounds pretty good anyway 🙂

  • sj

    Your review makes me want to read this, but I don’t know if it would be my thing. What do you think?

    • Heather

      Since you’re not really into the Lit Fic stuff, I’d say no…but I also believe in trying stuff outside of your comfort zone. I could always loan it to you so you don’t waste any money on it, just in case.

  • There’s something about this cover and title that had me passing this book up over and over again. After reading your review, I’m going to add it to my tbr list.

  • The only thing I can see when I look at the cover is Free Willy. I’m glad it’s not wholly depressing, because I can’t do wholly depressing in the middle of winter.

    (Also, I noticed your side bar says your reading The Dark Half this February. That is one of my favorite King books that I feel like no one likes. Ugh, sparrows.)

  • My heart breaks for people like Willy … we as a society need to do so much better when it comes to caring for people like him.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour for this very powerful read.

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