53 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Franzen

Freedom

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Introduction

Freedom is a 2010 novel by American author Jonathan Franzen. The story focuses on the Berglunds, a dysfunctional family living in Minnesota. The novel examines themes of family, freedom, depression, addiction, marriage, and more. Freedom was a selection for Oprah’s book club and won great critical acclaim.

Content warning: This guide contains references to alcohol addiction and rape, which are discussed in the source text.

Plot Summary

The book unfolds across four parts. Part 1, “Good Neighbors,” provides the background on the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund and their arrival in St. Paul, Minnesota. Patty is a former star basketball player who is now languishing in the suburbs as her children grow more distant from her and her relationship with her husband grows strained. Walter is an attorney and an environmentalist, with a specific love for birds. When the novel begins, their son Joey has just left home to move in with his girlfriend Connie’s family, which disturbs Patty. The section concludes with Walter and Patty moving to Washington, DC after their children leave home for college.

Part 2 is a piece of metafiction called “Mistakes Were Made.” It takes the form of Patty’s autobiography, written at the request of her therapist. It focuses on her experience as a college athlete, the aftermath of a rape, and her early involvement with Walter and his friend, the rock musician Richard Katz. She eventually marries Walter but remains infatuated with Richard for many years after. Richard spurns her advances to spare Walter’s feelings, but he eventually breaks down and has sex with Patty at the Berglund vacation home, situated on an unnamed lake. This will eventually disrupt Patty’s marriage.

Part 3 focuses on Walter, Richard, and Joey. Walter begins working for the Cerulean Mountain Trust while Richard finds commercial success with an album called Nameless Lake. Walter falls in love with Lalitha, his assistant. Richard gives Patty’s autobiography to Walter, who then kicks Patty out. Joey begins working for a company called LBI, trying to profit from the Iraq War. He buys antiquated, rusted parts for trucks that American soldiers will use, leading to consequences that will haunt his conscience. Prior to his business dealings, Joey marries Connie in secret while also planning to pursue Jenna, the attractive sister of his roommate, Jonathan. They have a disastrous trip to Argentina, during which Joey and Jenna start to have sex. Joey cannot perform sexually with Jenna, leading him to realize that he is love with Connie. More broadly, he realizes that he wants to be a better person.

Walter becomes a minor celebrity after an anti-LBI speech he makes at the company’s grand opening goes viral. At the moment of his unlikely ascendance to fame, Lalitha dies in a car crash, robbing him of any happiness.

Before Part 4 begins, Patty’s autobiography receives its concluding chapter. Written with Walter in mind, the chapter is Patty’s attempt to help him make sense of why she was unfaithful to him, and why she still wants him.

Part 4 commences six years later. Walter is now living at Nameless Lake, which is now a development called Canterbridge Estates Lake. He spends his days feuding with a neighbor whose cat stalks the neighborhood birds. Walter captures the cat and takes it to a shelter three hours away. When he returns, Patty is on his doorstep in the freezing cold. He eventually takes her inside and they reconcile. After they move back to New York, they convert the lake house into a bird sanctuary and name it after Lalitha.

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