The book begins with a brief overview of the Berglund family, told from the non-specific perspective of their neighbors. Well, no, really it begins by mentioning that an article has recently appeared in the New York Times – a surprisingly unflattering article about one Walter Berglund. It's strange, because the article portrays Walter as a bad guy doing shady things with coal companies, and yet all his neighbors had always known him as a passionate environmentalist. Weird, right? Well, we're not going to get to this for a while yet, so let's back up.
In the early 1980s, Walter and Patty move to Ramsey Hill, which makes them the initial gentrifying residents of this down-and-out neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter is from a poor family in Hibbing, Minnesota; Patty is from a wealthy family in the New York City suburbs. They have two kids: Joey, for whom everything comes too easily, and Jessica, who is talented in many ways as well, but not quite as effortlessly talented as her brother.
Things go downhill when Joey starts a relationship with Connie, the daughter of the Berglunds' next-door neighbor, Carol. Patty and Joey had been very close, but now things go sour. When he is sixteen, Joey moves in next door with Connie, Carol, and Carol's right-wing boyfriend Blake. The Berglunds feel devastated, furious, and betrayed. Patty takes it particularly hard.
Twenty years after they move in, just after September 11th, the Berglunds sell their house and Walter starts his new job in Washington, D.C. And that's the end of that overview.
Next, we get a third-person autobiography of sorts, a personal history written by Patty (at the suggestion of her therapist). Here's what we learn:
Patty's mother is a politician and her father is a public defender. Her sisters are all very artistic and capable. They get lots of encouragement and support. Patty, on the other hand, is a skilled athlete and highly competitive. No one in her family understands her. When she's seventeen, she gets date-raped by the son of a family friend. Her parents have a difficult time supporting her because they need to maintain relations with the boy's family. Patty feels abandoned, and rightly so.
Patty decides to attend the University of Minnesota to play basketball, and to be as far away from her family as possible. And, turns out, she's really good at basketball. One year she's even named second-team All-American. She is befriended by a student named Eliza, who has a creepy and dangerous obsession with Patty.
Creepy Eliza starts a relationship with a musician named Richard Katz. Their relationship mostly consists of Eliza supplying Richard with drugs and Richard taking them. Eliza tells Patty about how much she hates Richard's weird, nerdy roommate, a law student named Walter. Patty finally meets Walter when Richard's punk band (the Traumatics) is playing at a local club. Walter doesn't seem weird or creepy at all, but instead is very nice, even if not as sexy and mysterious as drugged-out Richard. Walter falls for Patty immediately.
Meanwhile, Richard and Eliza break up. Walter and Patty become very close friends, though it doesn't turn into anything more because Patty sort of has a crush on Richard. Walter is a very passionate liberal, and even though Patty doesn't exactly share his passion, he encourages her in her opinions. Patty and Eliza have a big falling-out, mostly due to Eliza being totally obsessed with her and having a serious drug problem. (Fair enough.)
One night, Richard scolds Patty, telling her to stop stringing Walter along. It's not fair. Patty feels bad, but not bad enough to stop pursuing sexy-mysterious Richard. She and Richard end up taking a road trip to New York, during which she tries to seduce him (in Chicago, if you must know). After he rejects her, she takes the bus back to Minnesota. She joins Walter in Hibbing, where his father is dying and he is needed to help out his family.
Three weeks after Patty graduates from college, she and Walter get married. Walter's father dies, and the newlyweds move to Ramsey Hill. She wants a house and children straight away, and Walter gets a job to support her. Things go like that for about ten or twelve years. They're happy.
Really everything turns around when Joey moves in with Connie next door. Patty becomes frighteningly depressed and bitter, and starts drinking heavily. Walter and Richard become close again, and when Richard needs a place to stay, Walter offers the use of Walter's (deceased) mother's house. (Outside of Grand Rapids, the little house was on a small pond that, years before, in better times, Patty and Joey had called "Nameless Lake.") Richard goes up there for a summer and does renovations. In August, Patty joins him at the house for a few days. After much anxiety and guilt and crazy temptation, they have a brief, torrid affair.
Over the next few years, they're still hung up on each other. They almost rendezvous a few more times. Patty gets more and more depressed; she drinks more and more. Throughout the text, she wonders if she still loves Walter…or if she ever did.
Richard puts out an alt-country album, with his band Walnut Surprise, called Nameless Lake. It's a huge success. Walter is jealous; he wants to do something awesome himself. So he takes an exciting new job and they move to Washington, D.C. As soon as they move in to the new place, Patty sees she has made a huge mistake. And that's where her autobiography ends.
Now it's 2004, and we're going to see things from Richard Katz's point of view. For this chapter, he'll be referred to as "Katz." Katz has had a weird couple of years: after the album's success, he took his band on an endless world tour, then was arrested for DUI and drug possession, and then spent some time in rehab. Now flat-broke, he's living in Jersey City, New Jersey, and has gotten work building rooftop decks in Manhattan. Talk about a reversal of fortunes.
Walter calls him one day and tells him he has a proposal. The next day, Katz meets Walter and his beautiful young assistant, Lalitha, for lunch. They tell him about the organization they've founded, the Cerulean Mountain Trust, in cooperation with a mega-millionaire coal-and-oil-baron named Vin Haven. Haven is a bird enthusiast, and has decided to devote, you know, a few hundred million dollars to protecting a small bird called the cerulean warbler. To do this, he wants to set aside a large wilderness reserve in one of the most important warbler habitats, which is in West Virginia.
The plan is this: they'll buy up one hundred square miles of land, allow it to be mined of all its coal (through mountaintop removal, which is very environmentally damaging, by the way), after which it will be set aside forever and ever. It's sort of a crazy gamble. Also, it turns out that Haven hasn't been entirely honest about his motives. (Want to know all the dirty details? Check out our "Detailed Summary.")
As Walter and Lalitha see it, the ultimate cause of the warbler and for all environmental problems is human overpopulation. So they plan to take a million dollars from their discretionary fund and start a big overpopulation movement. Get it back on the public's radar. Make having lots of kids uncool. How does all this relate to Katz? Well, they want him to headline some sort of politics and music festival in West Virginia. He says he'll think about it.
After the meeting, Katz and Walter catch up. Katz asks him if he realizes that Lalitha is totally in love with him. (He does.) Walter says Patty has been very depressed; she almost can't function anymore. Katz decides he's going to seduce Patty in order to knock some sense into Walter. Right.
OK, time for another big shift: we get to meet Walter and Patty's son Joey. Joey is in his freshman year at college when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occur. It's the first time he can remember his life not going exactly as he had planned it. It sort of throws him off.
Things are all right at school. He's still with Connie, though busy trying to find an excuse to break up with her. His roommate Jonathan has a pretty older sister (Jenna), and Joey wants to get together with her. He goes to Jonathan's family's house for Thanksgiving. Jonathan's father runs a right-wing think tank, which is encouraging President Bush to invade Iraq, in order to protect national interests and also protect Israel. Impressed with Joey, he invites the young man to work with his think tank next summer.
A month later, Joey ends up house-sitting at Patty's estranged sister Abigail's apartment in Manhattan. Lonely, he asks Connie to come stay with him. But, oh, he's still pursuing Jenna.
Next up: Walter. And although the reader has so far known Walter as really nice, in this chapter we learn he's actually quite angry. We join him and Lalitha in West Virginia, having just signed the final documents to set aside land for the warbler reserve. Lalitha wants to get drunk and celebrate. But Walter is angry and doesn't feel much like celebrating. They go out to dinner, and Lalitha (very drunk, fine celebrating on her own) confesses her love for him. He's tempted to kiss her, but resists. Instead, he ends up lost in memories, recalling some of the most horrible and painful fights he and Patty have had in the past few years. Their marriage is not going very well at all. Nor is this evening.
The next morning, Walter tells Lalitha he loves her as well. They kiss in the car. Then they drive to the site where the bulldozers are about to start clearing. As it turns out, the miners have gotten there too early and some environmental activists are blocking the road, so this doesn't start off very well. As they drive away, Walter gets a strange phone call from Joey, saying he's in some sort of trouble. Walter laughs and says, hey, he's in trouble too!
OK, with all that in place, we move back to Katz. He takes a train down to D.C., supposedly to attend a meeting with the Trust, but really to seduce Patty again. At the meeting, it's obvious that Lalitha and Jessica (Walter's daughter) hate each other. Also, Lalitha and Patty hate each other. They lay out a plan for the festival and call it Free Space. Katz agrees to everything they ask him to do.
Later that night, Katz finally manages to get some alone time with Patty. It doesn't go well, though. He asks her to come away with him, and she laughs and cries and then gives him the manuscript of her personal history. He stays up all night reading it and then leaves it on Walter's desk for him to find in the morning. Two days later, back in Jersey City, he finds Patty sitting on his front steps. Walter kicked her out.
We return to Joey two years after the last time we saw him. Through his time at the think tank, he made connections that ended up landing him a job with a contractor involved in the Iraq War. He's living in Washington, while Connie is still back in Minnesota, very depressed and perhaps suicidal. And he's still stringing her along, not letting her come live with him, mostly because he's also still pursuing Jenna. Now he has some business in Paraguay next month, and he's using that as an excuse to go on vacation with Jenna in Argentina, in hopes of finally getting her into bed. Oh, and wait, one more thing: he and Connie got married last year, on a whim in New York City. Joey and his father are no longer talking. Joey and Jonathan are no longer talking either.
Joey goes down to Argentina with Jenna. She's not at all nice to him (or anyone else, really). His boss calls and says he has to get to Paraguay immediately, so he leaves. And that's (finally) the end of things with Jenna.
He gets to Paraguay, hoping to buy used parts for an obscure line of Polish trucks that stopped being made twenty years ago, but are now being used by the US Military. They'll pay top dollar for parts. Joey finds lots of parts, but they're all rusted and will probably break. His boss says just send them; it doesn't matter. Joey reluctantly agrees, and then goes back to Washington and feels horribly guilty about what he's done. He calls his father to ask for advice.
Then there's a big back-story about Walter's ancestors, and Walter's childhood, and the way generational relationships tend to repeat themselves. We're also told about the first time Walter spent time at the house on Nameless Lake, and how he came to love nature.
Then we return to the present, as Walter has just finished reading Patty's manuscript. He brings it to her to show her that he's read it. She simultaneously freaks out and tries to explain. Walter is convinced she never loved him. They argue for a while and then Walter asks her to get out. Once she's gone, Lalitha comes upstairs and they have sex for the first time.
In the weeks following, Walter and Joey reconcile. He and Connie visit Walter and Lalitha, and everyone gets along well. Joey decides to give his profits (dirty money) away to charity. Walter and Lalitha give their big press conference, announcing the Cerulean Mountain Trust. Then the New York Times article, the one from the very first sentence of the book, appears. It is, as promised, totally unflattering.
Jessica calls Walter on the telephone, saying that Patty's now living with Richard. He goes to his bedroom and smashes everything that reminds him of Patty (which is pretty much everything in his bedroom). Then he takes a few of Patty's sleeping pills and crashes.
He wakes up and has to go to a grand opening of a body armor factory, run by the same multinational corporation that encouraged Joey to purchase those crappy truck parts. So, instead of giving his nice congratulatory remarks, he goes on a big tirade about the evils of consumer culture and the approach of environmental catastrophe. Unsurprisingly, he gets beaten up by the audience and fired from his job. The video goes viral, making the Free Space movement suddenly appealing to anarchists and other activists.
Walter and Lalitha buy a van and drive across the country, spending lots of time out in nature reserves. They end up in Minnesota. Walter decides to try to find his brother, whom he has not seen in decades. Lalitha flies to West Virginia to help organize the festival. The next day, she dies in a car accident. Walter is busy reconnecting with his older brother when his phone rings with the terrible news.
That's the end of the 2004 section. Next, as a sort of conclusion to her previous personal history, Patty writes a long letter to Walter, catching him up on the last six years of her life (i.e., since he kicked her out). She lives in Brooklyn now, working as a teacher's aide at a private school and coaching basketball and softball at a middle school.
But to back up once again: she lived with Richard for a few months, and things ended badly. Then her father got sick and she went back to her parents' place to help out. After he died, there was a big dispute over the estate he left behind. Patty took the lead in negotiating between family members. So, in a way, she ends up reconnecting with all the family she'd ignored for so long. Joey and Connie, meanwhile, are very successful. They founded a sustainable shade-grown coffee business. Jessica works in literary publishing. And now she's in Brooklyn. Patty has a good relationship with Jessica and not such a good one with Joey. She misses Walter and wishes he would finally take her back. When she runs into Richard Katz one day, he suggests she write Walter a story.
Walter is living in his mother's old house on Nameless Lake. A big housing development has been built up around the lake and the lake has been named Canterbridge Estates Lake. He's still grieving terribly for Lalitha. He's working for the Nature Conservancy, doing the most tedious mindless work possible, just to keep himself occupied. He really hates his neighbors' cats, since they kill and eat his beloved birds. He winds up trapping one particularly ruthless cat and drives it three hours away to an animal shelter.
He receives a package from Patty in the mail, but doesn't open it. Then, a few weeks later, one from Richard. He doesn't open that one either. Then Patty shows up on his doorstep. First he ignores her, then he yells at her, but still he won't let her in. She's shivering uncontrollably. He goes and opens the packages: it's her letter, and a new CD from Richard called Songs for Walter.
Finally, Walter lets Patty in. She's dangerously cold by now. He lays her down in bed and lies down with her to try to warm her up. They stare into each other's eyes and reconnect. She moves back in, and they become very popular in the neighborhood. A few months later, they decide to move back to New York, to be closer to their family.