Goodman loves her characters, but she loves them a little too much. She wants them to find spiritual contentment and worldly success, much as an affluent parent might want for her children. And, after some pretty major losses and minor but affecting bruises, by and large, they do. It's remarkably satisfying if maybe a little too good to be true. Franzen, on the other hand, spares his characters nothing. They are unhappy people, despairing at the state of the world and loathing themselves at the same time, intelligent but short-sighted, charming but supremely selfish, and generally the kind of people you want to shake out of their foolish behavior. Humiliation abounds in Freedom, much of it self-inflicted. And yet, we stick with these people, hoping for some sort of turnaround, unlikely as we seem to get it. So when it comes (again, after some major losses and minor bruises), the redemption -- impartial, compromised, and incredibly human -- is almost a surprise, and profoundly moving.
Both Franzen and Goodman seem to believe that people are essentially good and worthy of comfort -- but Franzen holds that view rather grudgingly, as though he has too much reason to believe otherwise, but can't help himself in the end. The Great American Novel moniker aside (because, really, what good is it?), both novels strike me as thoroughly American. It's just that Goodman has a little more faith in our country, and Franzen, a little more doubt -- a larger sense of our culpability in the world that we have made.