In the first part of Freedom, we meet the Berglund family. And it makes sense (considering the title of this part is "Good Neighbors") that we meet them through the people who live in their neighborhood.
This section functions almost like a prologue, framing many of the events that will follow. So let's dive right in.
The novel begins with big news: there's a story about Walter Berglund in the New York Times. He and his wife Patty used to live around here, until moving to D.C. two years earlier. Pretty impressive, being written about in the Times.
Before we go on, let's ponder a clue inserted here: the fact that the Berglunds' old neighbors read the New York Times suggests a few things to us: they're probably left-leaning, educated, maybe upper-middle class.
And just to make sure we get the point, in the very first sentence Franzen calls this crowd the "urban gentry of Ramsey Hill" (1.1.1).
They always thought Walter was a really sweet guy and very passionate about the environment. So it comes as a bit of surprise that the article describes his shady dealings with a coal company and has considerably less-than-positive adjectives for Walter himself.
The opening paragraph concludes that "there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds" (1.1.1).
And then, just like that – you've just picked up the book, you probably haven't even taken you first sip of tea – and we're whisked back into Ramsey Hill's past, at the moment Walter and Patty first move to the neighborhood.
Remember that word "gentry" above? Well, you know what the verb form of "gentry" is? Gentrify. Walter and Patty move to Ramsey Hill when the area is still down-and-out and has been for about thirty years.
They're the first college graduates in the neighborhood. They buy an old Victorian house really cheap and spend years fixing it up.
They have it pretty rough at first, but eventually a community of like-minded people develops, who share similar concerns – concerns that, Franzen tells us, were precisely the reason the reader's parents fled the city for the suburbs: "like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief [...] and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it" (1.1.3).
It may seem like we're going on about this a bit too much, but this stuff is really important, we swear. Franzen is painting a very specific picture of life in America, and what sort of world the Berglunds inhabit. So this first chapter informs everything that comes afterwards.
Now that all this has been covered, let's meet some characters.
We first meet Patty as a young mother, pushing a stroller through the broken glass sidewalks of Ramsey Hill in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Franzen describes her as an archetype for what the rest of the neighborhood will soon become.
We get to know Patty through little snapshots – whispers and gossip from her neighbors.
Like that she was a second-team All-American basketball player in college. And that she grew up in the New York suburbs (although she doesn't like talking about her parents very much).
She's very self-deprecating, but never talks bad about anyone else. The worst word she will ever use to describe someone is "weird" (1.1.6).
Patty's also one of few stay-at-home moms in the area and does all sorts of sweet neighborhood-mom type things, like baking cookies for birthdays and stuff.
One of the reader's main sources of information in this opening chapter is a couple called the Paulsens: Seth and Merrie. Although they are "far down on [Patty's] list of go-to neighbors" (1.1.8), they still know quite a bit about what's going on down the street.
Next we meet the Berglunds' next-door neighbor, Carol Monaghan, who has lived there for almost as long as they have. Otherwise, she's pretty different than them.
Carol's back-story goes something like this: she was some big shot's secretary, and got knocked-up by said big shot, so he arranged for her to move out of her district, and paid her rent out here in Ramsey Hill.
By the late 1980s, Carol is the only "non-gentrifier" left on the block (1.1.8). She's what we might call "trashy" – or at least she dresses trashy, and doesn't seem to be a very good mother to her daughter-with-the-big-shot, Connie.
Although Patty ends up taking care of Connie much of the time (like when Carol is out on Thursday nights, partying), Carol never returns the favor.
Nope, instead she flirts with Walter, ignores their daughter Jessica, and "dotes inappropriately" on their son Joey (1.1.8).
(Oh yeah, this is how we meet the Berglunds' kids: Joey, the younger son, and Jessica, the elder daughter.)
Despite Carol's obnoxious behavior, Patty still refuses to say anything bad about her.
Back at the Paulsens' house (remember, the gossiping neighbors down the street), they sure do talk about the Berglunds a lot.
Seth seems to have a major crush on Patty, which his wife doesn't appreciate one bit. Merrie takes particular issue with her lack of political (read: liberal) principles, peeved that Patty only seems to care about two things: her house and her children.
But the narrator corrects this point somewhat: Patty doesn't really care about her children (plural) so much as she really just cares about her son, Joey.
This is... well, let's hear how Franzen puts it: "And Patty was undeniably very into her son. Though Jessica was the more obvious credit to her parents – smitten with books, devoted to wildlife, talented at flute, stalwart on the soccer field, coveted as a babysitter, not so pretty as to be morally deformed by it, admitted even by Merrie Paulsen – Joey was the child Patty could not shut up about" (1.1.10).
Problem is, Joey's not really so awesome. He's not even very nice.
Patty constantly talks about Joey to neighbors, but most of the time it's talking about "having her heart trampled by him" (1.1.10).
One representative example is the time when Joey refused to accept his bedtime, saying there was no reason he should have to go to sleep earlier than his parents. Right…
The ensuing commotion in the Berglund home devolved into an argument about whether a family is "a democracy or a benevolent dictatorship" (1.1.15).
(Keep this in mind. Don't forget the book's simple but important title.)
We learn a little about Joey, but really there's just something about him – something intangible that makes him excel effortlessly, and makes everyone want to please him.
Everyone that is, except Walter, whose authority he constantly undermines. Another representative example: Walter punishes Joey with no dessert. So Joey insists he didn't want dessert anyway. Walter tries to prove to him he really did like dessert. Joey says he never wants dessert again. Patty tries to intervene, and make a case for dessert's positive attributes, etc. This is seriously comical stuff.
The only person whose love for Joey is even more unhealthy (and unwavering) is Connie, Carol's daughter. She's described as "grave and silent" (1.1.29), and there's even something creepy about her. She basically just follows Joey around all the time, even though she's a year and a half older (which is a big age gap as kids, remember).
When Joey is eleven and Connie is twelve, they start having sex (yes, you read that right) – becoming well-known as the first kids in their school to become sexually active.
Of course, everyone seems to know about it except Walter and Patty.
Then, rather improbably, the young couple goes into business together. Joey has long resented being financially dependent on his parents (since this is Walter's prime method of exerting power over Joey – not just with dessert), and although he mows lawns and shovels driveways like many teenagers, even these jobs bothered him, because they make him feel subordinate to adults.
So Joey gets this idea (it's a long story) to sell watches to the girls at Connie's Catholic school – watches with messages embedded into the rubber. They sell a ton of them and make lots of money, until the school outlaws the watches. Joey feels cheated, and of course Walter says it serves him right.
That winter, Walter's mother dies, and Walter and Patty go out of town for a while.
Joey and Connie spend all that time (ahem) in Joey's bedroom.
Jessica tells her parents all about it when they get home, and from that point on, Patty becomes "a very different kind of neighbor, a much more sarcastic neighbor" (1.1.57).
In other big news, when she dies, Walter's mother bequeaths to Walter's family a little vacation home, up north on a small lake near Grand Rapids (that's Grand Rapids, Minnesota – maybe you've heard, there are a lot of lakes in Minnesota).
The next summer, Patty and Joey go up to the house (Walter and Jessica stay home, doing different things) to clean and paint and do other maintenance.
They have a great time. Patty is in good spirits and Joey is sweet and helpful. He discovers that the tiny lake (really it's just a big pond) the house is on doesn't have a name, so he declares it "Nameless Lake."
Back in Ramsey Hill, Connie's mom Carol has a new boyfriend, a young (much younger than her) backhoe operator named Blake.
What's he like? Well, on the back of his big pick-up truck is a bumper sticker that reads, "I'M WHITE AND I VOTE" (i.e., presumably Republican).
Even worse than his blasting music (e.g., Creed) down the street is that he's building a big addition onto Carol's house. Not only is the noise terrible (imagine, loud machinery day and night), but the Berglunds have a totally unobstructed view of the mess.
Patty is furious. She complains to neighbors, complains to Blake, complains to the police – all to no avail.
Eventually "someone" slashes the tires on Blake's truck. But no one knows who did it for sure.
In more positive news, Carol is happier than ever, has cleaned up her image, and doesn't look so trashy anymore. So that's a plus.
But we still don't really know much about Walter yet, do we?
OK, then, here's his defining adjective. Are you ready? Here is comes: "niceness." Niceness? Can you believe that? Man, what a bland description.
Here's what Franzen writes: "Walter's most salient quality, besides his love for Patty, was his niceness" (1.1.119).
OK, there's a little more. Walter's also a great listener, a hard worker, a nature lover, and a supporter of the arts.
To his neighbors, he says in most cases he is just a "neutral bystander" (1.1.120).
But then Jessica leaves for college and Joey begins his junior year of high school. And Joey decides he's going to move next door – that is, move in with Connie, Carol, and Blake.
Franzen describes this as "[a] stunning act of sedition and a dagger to Patty's heart – the beginning of the end of her life in Ramsey Hill" (1.1.121).
And by the way, the previous summer, two big things had happened with Joey.
One, he worked on a ranch in Montana, impressing Walter's Nature Conversancy peeps by his "fearlessness and tirelessness" (1.1.121).
But before that, he and Patty had gone back up to the house on Nameless Lake, and things had not gone so well. Actually, they had really been openly cruel to each other. Patty returned home feeling crushed.
Anyway, now Joey's moving next door.
In case you were wondering, Blake's addition is now finished, and outfitted with "such Blakean gear as PlayStation, Foosball, a refrigerated beer keg, a large-screen TV" (1.1.122) and other such things irresistible to teenage boys.
Needless to say, Joey's parents are furious (about Joey moving, not about the beer keg so much). This story we hear from Carol's point of view, so of course it heaps lots of praise on Joey, and how cool he was – so cool, "you couldn't melt butter in his mouth" (1.1.123).
She also claims Patty has no respect for either Connie or herself (Carol), and describes Walter finally blowing up and screaming at Joey and kicking him out of the house.
Walter and Patty retreat from the neighborhood events where they used to be such fixtures. There's lots of gossip about them (particularly the claim that Patty has started drinking heavily), but no one really knows because "she had never made an actual close friend in Ramsey Hill" 1.134).
Joey settles in comfortably with Connie and Carol and begins sharing many of Blake's hobbies (power tools, his truck, etc.). It also looks like he begins to adopt Blake's right-wing politics.
Everyone in the neighborhood decides that all of this is Walter's fault. You know, Walter and his niceness. That he should've exerted more authority – over his wife and over his son.
Joey graduates from high school in 2001. Patty spends the summer at Nameless Lake. Walter begins commuting to a new job in Washington, D.C. That fall, Joey begins college at the University of Virginia.
Soon after the "great national tragedy" of September 11th, the Berglunds sell their house (getting much less money for it than if they'd waited a few years) and move to Washington, D.C. (1.1.137). They stop at their neighbors' houses to say good-bye. Patty, they notice, looks strangely youthful again.
Seth Paulsen marvel that the Berglunds managed to stay together all these years. Merrie says she doesn't think they've figured out how to live.