Meet Walter Berglund. He's the Rabbit Angstrom for our turgid 2000s, a patriarch caught tightly in the jaws of his dysfunctional family and his only means of distraction are the world's equally mucky politics. He's married to Patty, a depressed stay-at-home mom who is still holding fast to her days as a college basketball star. They settle down in St. Paul to raise their two children, Joey and Jessica, and find out how hard it is to be both good neighbors and good parents.
After a masterful opening chapter, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom shifts its perspective entirely towards Patty. Entering into a section called "Mistakes Were Made" we carefully plod through Patty's private autobiography (the creation of which was suggested by her therapist). Without an intended reader, Patty leaves very little held back. We learn more about the time she was raped in high school, her falling out with her family, and her sexual fascination (and experimentation) with Walter's best friend, a successful musician named Richard Katz.
Most of the book takes place in 2004, at a post-9/11 / pre-YouTube turning point in what Franzen outspokenly criticizes as our most cluttered decade. Franzen saturates Freedom with enough of the 2000s that they slowly soak into the foundation of the Berglund's life. The ever-presence of politics eats away at the Berglunds' already strained ties:
"Then, on the Fourth of July, during a family visit he was making only to be nice, [Joey] vouchsafed the details of his work… hoping to impress [Walter] with the size of his salary and the scope of his responsibilities; and his father all but disowned him on the spot. Until now, all his life, their relationship had essentially been a standoff, a stalemate of wills. But now, his dad was no longer content to send him on his way with a lecture…now he was shouting that Joey made him sick... and there was nothing he could do himself but cross his arms tightly and make his face a mask and shake his head and tell his dad, over and over, not to criticize things he didn't understand."
Freedom is not without its faults. The story backs into a slightly convoluted political thread as Walter grows into his 40s. He's working for a coal company that advocates mountaintop removal and considers it a necessary evil if the US is going to stay free from international oil trade. Walter intends to use the land sectioned off to create a bird sanctuary for the endangered Cerulean Warbler. Holding onto his political momentum, Walter further plans to use his clout to advocate population control, working with Richard Katz to target the Gen Y demographic. This transition from mountaintop removal to population control is not the easiest to follow, but the blame for this thread's weakness is more appropriately placed on Walter than it is on Franzen. Although a little less emotionally accessible, Walter's political relationships are just as knotted as those at home. Ultimately, this creates a tricky but important dichotomy; the slower parts of Freedom are there for a reason; they just require a bit of patience to see their intended purpose.