In Freedom, Walter and Patty Berglund are the main characters. The novel covers their life in Saint Paul, Minnesota from the time the young, white married couple begins to gentrify an urban neighborhood. Patty is a devoted wife and mother, while Walter is more involved with his business. As the children grow up, the parents grow apart. As a teenager, their son, Joey, gets involved with a neighbor’s daughter, Connie. Walter inherits a lake property from his parents, and Patty takes Joey there for the summer. When they return, Joey moves in with Connie at the home of her mother, Carol, of whom Patty disapproves because of class biases. Joey and Connie marry, and—after some dubious business dealings—he later goes into the coffee business. Jessica, who resents her mother for favoring Joey, eventually goes to work in publishing.
Walter’s involvement with ecology and conservation leads to a job with a non-profit in Washington, DC. Patty and Walter grow apart, as she realizes she has spent her energy in family and civic duties but not self-development. The book begins with Walter’s professional problems and looks back at how they developed.
Much of the novel takes the form of Patty’s autobiography, which she writes as therapy. Prior to their marriage, her memories of their earlier lives, including their getting together in college. Other incidents include her affair with Walter’s best friend, Richard. He becomes a musician and goes in and out of their lives. When Walter's learning about the earlier affair prompts their break-up, she reconnects with Richard for a while.
Walter becomes professionally and then personally involved with Lalitha through a project about protecting a bird, the cerulean warbler; ethical issues with corporate sponsors lead to their leaving the organization and his taking a more radical stance. While she is in West Virginia working on a project-related concert, which will feature Richard’s band, Lalitha is killed in an automobile accident. After considerable soul searching, including time spent at the lake house, Walter and Patty reunite.