"Poor Patty, poor competitive lost Patty" (3.3.110). Surely no other character in this book suffers as long or as hard as Patty does. And no other character falls as far from the pristine image we first get of her. In the first chapter, she's presented as the perfect wife and mother, but eventually her neighbors' envy soon turns to pity and scorn.
Is it all her own fault? Maybe. Probably, even. But that doesn't make it any less brutal to watch.
We first get to know Patty from the perspective of her neighbors – or, rather, as they knew her in the 1980s. She's a devoted wife, loving mother, and pretty much the perfect neighbor. Everyone loves her. But, of course, we have to ask how much her neighbors really know. When things start going seriously downhill for Patty (alcoholism, depression), she can no longer hide behind a veneer of neighborly chats and kids' birthday parties. Turns out, things for Patty have never been as clean or as easy as her neighbors were led to believe.
OK, let's get back to that line we started with – "Poor Patty, poor competitive lost Patty." It's time to turn our attention to the "competitive" part of that. Patty embraces athletics early on as a way (at least a little bit) to distance herself from her family and distinguish herself from her siblings' artistic achievements and from her parents' professional achievements (mother: political; father: legal). She thrives on her competitive streak, and is rewarded for it with big successes on the basketball court. (It doesn't hurt that she's 5'9".)
When Patty graduates from college, she's sad that she was so focused on basketball that she never actually pursued any other skill or area of study. But even more damaging to her future than having no career plans is the sudden lack of a competition in her life. She admits she marries and has kids so quickly so she can "defeat" her sisters in the baby-making competition. But what after that? She has so long thrived on competition, she doesn't know what to do with herself once than competition is gone.
What's a reasonable substitute for competition? How about conflict? Yeah, that works. And what do you know, her life ends up with plenty of "competition" after all: as she falls in love with her husband's best friend; and as her son chooses her next-door neighbor's house over her own; and as she battles internally between what she knows is right and the mistakes she can't stop herself from making.
If Franzen is indeed exploring the nature of freedom in our lives, then it looks like Patty represents the dangers of limitless freedom. Her love for Joey is way out of proportion to her love for Jessica and Walter, and way out of proportion to what Joey is even reciprocating (and so their relationship goes down the toilet too). In her weakest moments, she's fully prepared to abandon her commitment to her husband, resenting him for not being everything she wants in a man. But in her attempts to be free, and run away with someone else, Patty only becomes imprisoned by her guilt, her desire, and her crippling self-pity.
Patty certainly recognizes this problem of limitless freedom, but feels pretty powerless to do anything about it. It's in this way that she is truly "lost." In her autobiography she writes,
She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free. (2.3.583)
But all is not lost for Patty. By the end of the book, she realizes all this freedom isn't helping anything, and finds the strength to bring some discipline into her life…and finally finds all those happy moments she'd been searching for all along.