Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
News of a scandal involving Walter Berglund and his shady business practices comes as a surprise to the Ramsey Hill community in St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter had always been both incredibly moral and concerned about the environment (his scandal involved corruption with the coal industry). Still, when the Ramsey Hill...
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News of a scandal involving Walter Berglund and his shady business practices comes as a surprise to the Ramsey Hill community in St. Paul, Minnesota. Walter had always been both incredibly moral and concerned about the environment (his scandal involved corruption with the coal industry). Still, when the Ramsey Hill community reflects back, not everything about the Berglunds was as picture-perfect as it might seem. The story flashes back to the early days of Ramsey Hill when Walter and his wife, Patty, first move to the neighborhood.
In a way, the Berglunds are the forefront of a gentrification movement in Ramsey Hill. They buy an old Victorian house in an otherwise disreputable neighborhood and then slowly and meticulously renovate it. As a young mother to two children, Joe and Jessica, Patty becomes an integral social force in the neighborhood. She seems unfazed by the rougher constituency in her neighborhood, and her friendliness helps her ongoing efforts to improve the community. As more and more people move to Ramsey Hill (and continue its collective renovation), Patty befriends them and helps out whenever she can. Patty finds it nearly impossible to speak ill of any of her neighbors, instead preferring to make self-deprecating comments. Patty’s closed-mouth approach to neighborly relations includes even Carol Monaghan, the last remnant of pre-gentrified Ramsey Hill. Carol is a trashy single mother whose existence is partially funded by the public figure who fathered her daughter, Connie; he continues to pay Carol to prevent his family from discovering his indiscretion. Patty regularly babysits Connie, and overlooks Carol’s overt flirtations with Walter. Patty was once an athlete, before a career-ending injury. She hails from New York, where her mother is a state assemblywoman; however, Patty rarely speaks of them and does not seem to leave St. Paul to visit them or anyone else.
Instead, Patty invests all of her energy in her children. As the children begin to grow up (in the 1980s and 1990s), Jessica develops into a well-rounded girl who succeeds in most of her endeavors. Unfortunately, Patty dotes on Joey—sometimes at the expense of Jessica. From an early age, Joe is a precocious child, and Patty finds his difficult nature charming instead of trying to correct it. Joe regularly contests his parent’s authority, starting from a young age, which Patty complains and brags about in equal measure. The consensus in the neighborhood is that Patty is too permissive and Walter’s intense work schedule keeps him away from the home too much to allow him to intervene.
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Merrie Paulson prides herself on being the one person in the neighborhood who sees through Patty’s warm exterior. A decade older than the Berglunds, Merrie frequently reminds her husband, Seth, of Patty’s shortcomings. This becomes especially important to her when she registers that Seth finds Patty attractive. Frequently after Patty stops by, Merrie will find something critical to say about Patty. By the late 1990s, the kids grow up, and Joey becomes increasingly resistant to authority, especially his father’s. Walter is beside himself when Joey gets in trouble for selling marked-up watches at school, especially when the boy’s only regret is that his newfound income has been halted. Patty finds Joey’s resistance humorous, and Merrie notes Patty’s tendency to turn a blind eye to her son’s faults. For example, as teenagers, Joey and Connie Monaghan begin a sexual relationship. Despite the fact that Patty still watches Connie while her mother, Carol, is at work, Patty does not observe Connie’s doting on Joey.
Patty doesn’t catch wind of Joey’s relationship with Connie until Walter’s mother falls ill. When the old woman collapses and has to be hospitalized, Joey throws an orgiastic party at the house, much to Jessica’s chagrin. When their parents return, Patty learns of some of her son’s activities and promptly blames Connie and her mother, Carol. In response, Patty begins to canvas the neighborhood complaining about the Monaghans. Patty, who was once known for remembering the birthdays of all the kids in the neighborhood, is now regularly avoided by neighbors tired of her ranting. To reconnect with her son, Patty schedules a getaway the following summer. Walter’s mother left him a house on a lake that Walter decided to keep as a family retreat. Since the lake is mostly unknown except to locals, Patty refers to it as Nameless Lake. Patty takes Joey up for most of the summer, where he works at refurbishing and restoring the house. Merrie and other neighbors wonder if Patty has to pay her son to get him to agree to this quality time.
Carol, meanwhile, has found herself a steady boyfriend after years of weekend partying and short-term gentlemen guests. As a result, she cleans herself up, dresses more discreetly, and takes a greater interest in town politics. Her new boyfriend, Blake, is a construction worker who is considerably younger than she is. When Patty returns from her summer vacation with Joey, she is disgruntled to find out that Carol has bought her home after years of renting, which means she has become a more permanent fixture in the neighborhood.
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Carol’s entrenchment in Ramsey Hill exacerbates Patty’s volatile behavior and she becomes increasingly hostile towards Carol, Connie, and especially Blake. While Patty was away, Blake began an extensive addition onto the back of Carol’s house since she is now its owner. The construction is noisy and often continues into the night. Walter, who frequently works late, takes little notice and the Paulsens don’t want to get involved; however, Patty is driven to distraction by the racket. She repeatedly confronts Blake about the noise and he dismisses her. When she calls the police on several occasions, they stop by but take no real action. Patty is now not the only one trolling the neighborhood looking for information and spreading gossip; Carol makes it a point to deliver her side of the story to her neighbors as well.
The tension between the two households builds to a head when Joey informs his parents that he is going to move next door and live in Carol’s house now that the addition is nearly done. Walter, who tends to explode during conflict with his son, repeatedly attempts to wield his authority only to have Joey dismiss it. Patty, now on the verge of a breakdown, also screams at Joey to no avail. Eventually, Joey moves into the addition, only stopping by home when necessary or for brief stays around the holidays. Carol paints the story as an act of charity on her part, noting Patty’s apparent instability. She also voices the opinion shared by many in the neighborhood that Walter has never asserted full control over either his wife or his son. The neighbors note the odd new arrangement, which includes an unsettling sexual tension between Joey and Carol.
The next summer, a despondent Patty spends time alone at the Lake House and shortly thereafter, Joey heads off to school. The neighborhood is both surprised and unsurprised when the Berglunds put their house on the market just days after 9/11. Walter’s career with the Nature Conservancy led to a prestigious job in Washington. Walter, ever polite and dutiful, escorts Patty around the neighborhood to say goodbye to all of the families. The prospect of moving seems to have renewed Patty, even though they have to sell their house at a low price because of the poor housing market. Seth and Merrie, who is now running for city council, wonder what will become of the Berglunds, noting that they both seem so ill-suited to each other.
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The story flashes back to Patty’s childhood in New York; what follows is an autobiography Patty has written of her life based on her therapist’s recommendation; she has tentatively titled the work Mistakes Were Made. Patty is one of four children and always feels like an outsider growing up, both at school and in her own home. Patty grows up to be tall and athletic, which often makes her stand out uncomfortably among her less developed peers. As a result, athletics become an important part of her life. She excels at them, and her size is put to good use. Patty’s mother, Joyce, is a state politician who is always obsessed with appearances. Though she is of Jewish descent, Joyce hides her ancestry by using her married name and attempting to downplay her accent. She frequently finds Patty’s athletic pursuits unladylike, and rebukes Patty for the aggression she displays during games.
Patty’s father, Ray Emerson, is an attorney whose career puts him in contact with lots of shady characters. Ray also has a penchant for mockery and aims his humor primarily at Patty. As a result of his constant jabs, Patty develops the opinion that her intelligence is lower than average. Ray also regularly makes fun of Eulalie, the Barbadian housekeeper who lives in their basement. This mortifies Patty, who is very close to Eulalie. Patty’s siblings are all artistically inclined (and largely disinclined in all other areas), and Joyce frequently marvels at their abilities while virtually ignoring Patty.
Patty develops an agreeable personality as a result of her parents’ dismissiveness. She has no trouble making friends, but finds boys more challenging. One night, Patty decides to attend a party with some of her friends. While at the party, she gets extremely drunk, which is a first for Patty. Later in the party, a senior named Ethan Post takes her to a secluded place and rapes her. The virginal Patty is unsure what is happening, but starts to fight as Ethan becomes more violent. The still inebriated Patty arrives home late and goes to sleep in the room she shares with her little sister. It is only the next morning, when her head is clearer, that she fully comprehends she was raped. She weeps silently in the shower and then goes to see the one person she feels like she can tell: her coach. Mrs. Nagel, Patty’s coach, is shocked by the violence Patty endured and wants to make sure that Patty is okay. She tells Patty that she should go to the hospital to get a full examination; afterwards, she recommends Patty press charges against Ethan for rape. She then calls Patty’s mother to explain the situation. Despite Mrs. Nagel’s recommendations, Joyce and Ray have other plans about how to deal with Patty’s situation.
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Joyce soon arrives and picks up Patty to take her home. During the drive home, Joyce questions Patty about the night’s events and Joyce’s hypothetical language reveals that she doesn’t want to believe Patty was raped. Patty immediately understands the source of Joyce’s hesitation: the Posts are major political figures who help fund Joyce’s campaigns. If Patty were to file charges against their son, it would compromise Joyce’s political career. Joyce asks Patty if she would be satisfied if Ethan simply apologized for his actions. Patty informs her mother that Ethan did apologize after it was over, but it wasn’t particularly meaningful to Patty and didn’t make her being raped okay.
Once they arrive home, they tell Ray about Patty, and he initially seems more outraged than Patty’s mother. Despite Patty’s reiteration of Coach Nagel’s recommendation that she go to the hospital, Joyce takes Patty to see Dr. Sipperstein, her pediatrician. Dr. Sipperstein examines Patty to make sure that she is okay; he tells her not to base her opinions of sex on this horrible experience. Ray, meanwhile, is resistant to the idea of pressing charges against Ethan. He explains to Patty that Posts are a wealthy family; they most likely will hire the best lawyers whose strategy will be to prolong and delay the trial until Patty’s family runs out of money. For this reason, Ray recommends to Patty that they try to handle it privately. While she is being examined by Dr. Sipperstein, Ray calls Chester Post, Ethan’s father.
When Patty returns home, Ray explains to his daughter that Ethan (through his father, Chester) has denied the allegations. Ethan maintains it was consensual sex that was a little rough. Patty desperately wants her father to stand up for her, but he explains it won’t do any good. Patty was at a party full of Ethan’s friends who saw them together for most of the night; Patty fought Ethan but didn’t scream, which means no one heard her; Ethan used contraception, which will make it look more consensual; Ethan has a good reputation, and the fact that he drove Patty home makes it look like a date. Despite his daughter’s outrage, Ray tells Patty to forget about it and have a great senior year (instead of a messy, invasive trial if she pressed charges).
Patty’s senior year is full of athletic successes; she regularly breaks athletic records in a variety of sports. Towards the end of her year, Joyce runs for assemblywoman and the Posts host a fundraiser at their home. Joyce pretends to ask Patty if it is okay, but goes ahead with the fundraiser and even makes Patty attend. The event culminates in group photo with both families; Patty declines to participate.
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In college, Patty dives headfirst into athletics and proves to be as successful as she was in high school, particularly at basketball. She was offered a number of athletic scholarships at prestigious East Coast Universities, but decides to go to Minnesota both to be away from her parents and punish them with the school’s lack of prestige. Early in her first year, Patty meets Eliza, an odd young woman who has seen her play and marvels at her skills. Eliza seems to have no interest in athletics, but a distinct interest in befriending Patty. They run into each other several times before Patty even learns her name. Patty is initially flattered by the attention Eliza offers and becomes her friend. Eliza is an indifferent student who favors partying and dates with various pseudo-boyfriends to completing her studies. She also has little use for Patty’s athletic friends and refers to them as lesbians; she seems most happy when she and Patty hang out together alone. Part of the way Eliza insinuates herself into Patty’s life is by recognizing Patty’s personality. She chides Patty for being too vulnerable when she catches Patty off-guard and is able to guess that she is a rape survivor. Patty assumes that her unguarded nature is part of what makes her a good player because she keeps her mind clear and focused.
At the end of the year, Eliza is bummed that Patty is going home for the summer to work for her father. Eliza cannot imagine how Patty could have fun living with her family whom she knows Patty doesn’t like very much. Nevertheless, Patty returns home for an uneventful summer (and a much-needed break from Eliza). While she is away, Eliza writes to her obsessively, regardless of Patty’s less frequent responses. One of Patty’s artsy sisters, Abigail, mocks Eliza’s obsessive letter-writing and suggests that Patty is a lesbian; as always, Patty feels isolated from her sisters, who obviously look down on her.
One of Eliza’s near-daily letters includes a detailed series of rules for their friendship, including that Patty should only drink in Eliza’s company and run any major decisions by Eliza. Patty, playing along, sends rules to Eliza about reducing her smoking, exercising more, and attending her classes regularly. The girls are reunited in the fall and are given the first opportunity to see what, if any, impact the new rules of their friendship will have.
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In the fall, Patty begins another successful athletic year and begins to date Carter, who may or may not be an ex of Eliza’s. Patty’s busy sports schedule leaves her with limited availability, but this doesn’t present a problem for Carter. Often, their dates will consist of an afternoon or evening of sex during one of Patty’s infrequent windows of free time. Patty likes the casualness of the relationship, but finds herself liking Carter more than casually. She decides not to think about the possibility that Carter might have any other casual sex partners with no strings attached.
In April, Patty decides to return early from Spring Break to surprise Carter. When she shows up at Carter’s apartment building, she is surprised when Eliza answers the intercom. Eliza sounds incredibly surprised by Patty’s arrival and shows up downstairs after a seemingly interminable wait. At the door, Patty senses something is up and asks Eliza why she didn’t buzz Patty in. Eliza tries to dodge the questions and suggests that she and Patty go out to catch up. Patty realizes that Carter has another woman up there, and Eliza confirms it. In fact, Carter, the girl, and Eliza have been having a private party involving a lot of cocaine. Eliza briefly tries to interest Patty in the drugs, and then chastises Patty for not telling Eliza of her plan to come home early. Inexplicably, Patty keeps Eliza as a friend even after dropping Carter. Looking back on it, Patty feels sure that the drug party most likely included a ménage à trois among Carter, Eliza and the mystery girl. As always, Patty decides not to consider the specifics of Eliza’s involvement.
Eliza, full of guilt and fear of losing Patty’s friendship, begins campaigning for Patty’s time and attention. She attempts to be more serious about her studies and even takes up exercise to prove that she is following Patty’s rules for her. Eliza’s renewed vigor convinces Patty to stay in Minnesota for the summer. Once Patty agrees to live with Eliza, she is shocked by how little time Eliza spends with her. While Patty is home, Eliza goes out partying—drinking, doing drugs, hooking up with guys—and completely ignores her roommate. Only when Patty threatens to go home for the rest of the summer does Eliza begin another friendship campaign. After the dreariness of the summer, Patty is optimistic when Eliza finally seems to get serious about a guy that fall. The guy is a musician, which accounts for Eliza’s infatuation, and Patty soon learns he has a roommate named Walter.
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Richard, the punk musician dating Eliza, could not be more of an opposite from Walter. Richard is a lothario who plays in a punk band, while his best friend/roommate is wholesome to a fault. Richard’s first encounter with Patty is tense, as he questions her with rude directness while Eliza showers. In the middle of their conversation, Richard goes into Eliza’s room and brings back a scrapbook that Eliza keeps hidden. The entire scrapbook is dedicated to Patty—her life, her accomplishments and her friendship with Eliza. Richard tries to get Patty to admit that Eliza is an unbalanced stalker, but Patty defers, sensing a judgment of Eliza is also a judgment of Patty’s decision to be friends together. Hearing Eliza finish her shower, she begs Richard to return the scrapbook before Eliza notices. When Eliza emerges, Patty and Richard trade a few more barbs before Patty agrees to go with Eliza to see Richard’s band play. After Richard and Eliza leave, Patty sobs alone despite not knowing the reason for her tears.
The night of Richard’s gig, Eliza and Patty meet Walter at a punk club. Richard is backstage preparing to go on with his band, The Traumatics. Eliza quickly disappears to find Richard, leaving Walter and Patty alone together. Patty is only vaguely aware of having a romantic interest in Richard, despite their disagreements. As they wait, Walter informs Patty that Eliza is a heavy drug user and has gone backstage to do some with Richard before his show. Having been warned by Eliza that Walter hates her, Patty initially defends her friend (even though she suspects what Walter says is true). When a bubbly Eliza returns, the Traumatics take the stage and begin to play. The music is angry, loud, and not terribly melodic; fortunately, Walter gives Patty a set of earplugs at the start. Eliza eventually disappears into the crowd, completely ignoring Patty, who decides to head home. She ends up in front of the club with Walter, who insists on taking her home. Wary from her experience with Ethan Post, she refuses. As they talk, they both admit their respective friends have serious ethical and moral shortcomings. Patty finally agrees to let Walter take her home and he asks if he can call her sometime. Eliza, who is wrapped up in all things Richard, doesn’t have as much time to devote to Patty. Patty also realizes that Eliza most likely was the one who supplied Carter with the drugs for their infamous three-way party.
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Patty agrees to spend time with Walter in part because it guarantees her proximity to Richard. Patty learns that Walter is a very decent guy: his family runs a small motel, and Walter works long hours in addition to his schoolwork and extracurricular activities. His mother is handicapped and his father is an alcoholic, which doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on Walter’s good nature. Patty enjoys Walter’s fawning since she now receives less of it from Eliza; at times, Patty even considers that she might like Walter independently of his connection to Richard.
The entire dynamic changes when Richard dumps Eliza. Eliza goes into crisis mode without Richard and admits that she hasn’t been going to any of her classes or keeping up with her work. Eliza is given to frequent impromptu visits and calls at odd hours to rehash her problems; one night, Patty hides out in the library just to avoid running into Eliza. Over Christmas break, Eliza calls Patty and tells her that she has been diagnosed with leukemia. While she is not specific about the seriousness of her illness, she is optimistic. Patty is overcome with guilt and dives headfirst into taking care of Eliza when they return to campus in the New Year. Simultaneously, Patty starts dodging Walter, in part because she knows she is ignoring discrepancies in Eliza’s stories about her illness. For example, Eliza doesn’t lose her hair, her parents only seem to visit when Patty isn’t there, and she insists she takes some of her medicine hypodermically.
One night, Walter runs into Patty at the library and she isn’t able to escape him. He is confounded by her cutting off communication and wonders if she’s done something wrong. When Patty explains Eliza’s illness, Walter is dubious and tells her that Eliza is a heroin addict—it was part of the reason Richard broke up with her. Patty doesn’t admit her doubts to Walter, and he promises to leave her alone if that is what she wants.
At Patty’s next game, her performance suffers greatly and she is not able to focus on the game. Despite being the star player, her coach pulls her from the game partway through and the team loses. Patty weeps over the loss and marches over to Eliza’s determined to end the friendship. Eliza tries to pretend that she did drugs to help with the pain of her leukemia, but Patty forces her to admit it’s a lie. Eliza threatens suicide, and a disinterested Patty calls for her parents. When they finally arrive, Patty leaves Eliza in their care. Eliza still doesn’t believe the friendship is over, but Patty knows they will never speak again.
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When Patty leaves Eliza’s apartment, she feels elated by her freedom and breaks into a run. Unfortunately, she slips on some ice and falls, tearing her knee in the process. She has multiple surgeries and a long recovery in the immediate period after her fall. Walter shows up at her bedside, keeps her company and helps care for her during her recovery. Once she is out of the hospital, she reluctantly accepts an offer for a movie date with Walter. Patty tells her friend Cathy about her overall indifference to Walter, along with her confused feelings about Richard. At the theatre, Walter explains that Richard is moving back to New York so he suggests she move into his room. She gets Walter to admit his attraction but doesn’t offer any of her own. The film they watch, The Fiend of Athens, is a foreign film about a simple accountant who is mistaken for the title character and eventually becomes him. Patty and Walter disagree about the meaning of the movie as they return to Walter’s apartment so that she can look at it to decide if she wants to live with him.
Patty is surprised to find herself wanting to have sex with Walter, but this all changes when they arrive at his apartment and find Richard there. Richard attempts to excuse himself to give them some privacy, but Patty stops him. She also changes her upcoming plans to fly home so that she can catch a car ride with Richard. She steals glances at Richard’s room and insists that Richard drive her home so that the exhausted, hard-working Walter can get some sleep. Before they leave, Richard sits in the car and lectures Patty about stringing Walter along. Richard is aware that Patty has been flirting with him and tells her she needs to end things with Walter.
Patty’s version of ending things is to give Walter a vague, open-ended answer about moving into the apartment, encouraging him to give it to someone else if he or she asks before Patty decides. She also embarks on the trip out of Minnesota with Richard. The trip turns out to be a disaster. Richard continues to ignore her and the two end up staying overnight at the house of some of his band's friends for a few nights. The friends are hipster snobs who instantly write off Patty, who feels extremely isolated. In addition, it becomes clear that Patty is not going to make it back in time for an important celebration with her parents. When Richard disappears indefinitely, Patty realizes she no longer has a strong reason to go to New York. Instead, she catches a bus back to be with Walter. In addition to working hard, Walter has been keeping vigil at the hospital beside his father, who is dying.
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As Patty thinks of her family while writing this therapeutic autobiography, she puts some of her mistakes with Walter in context. Growing up, Patty often felt like an outsider who was boring and not terribly bright in comparison to her brother and two artistic sisters. She also knew that her complicated feelings for Richard further obscured her thinking when it came to him and Walter. What Patty now realizes is that her decision making was often motivated by a desire to prove something to her family by one-upping their low expectations of her. Marrying a nice guy like Walter, having children, and raising them gives Patty a kind of success that eludes her sisters. As adults, they remain unsuccessful and partially dependent on their parents. Their sense of entitlement has prevented them from lasting relationships or careers, so Patty thinks of Joyce and Ray’s poor parenting as a disguised blessing.
The hindsight does not help her in her youth when she has to take Walter to meet her family. Abigail, Patty’s middle sister, is particularly rude and judgmental. At one disastrous dinner with Abigail and her parents, Patty is mortified by the combined awfulness of all of her family’s behavior. Ray gets drunk and abrasive fairly early in the evening, leading to tense words between him and Joyce; Abigail does not even attempt to hide her sarcastic mockery; and Joyce’s politeness seems inseparable from condescension. Walter’s over-enthusiastic discussion of politics leads to three separate conversations for Patty, one with Ray, one with Joyce, and one with Abigail; all three find their own way of finding Walter’s interest odd.
Patty later admits to Walter that she hates her family, and he pledges his unflagging support of her. He would later tell Patty how sorry he felt for her sisters, who had far less happiness in their lives than Patty had. Patty realizes later, as she writes this memoir, that Walter’s life was a series of major sacrifices that he was too decent to bemoan. He had come to college initially intending to study film (and perhaps become a filmmaker); however, his father’s inability to run the family business (a motel) led Walter to study close to home, work long hours to help support his family, and settle into more “practical” courses of study. When his father died, just as Patty made her pivotal choice to be with him instead of Richard, he was then saddled with the responsibility of a wife and, later, children.
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The pivotal moment in Walter and Patty’s life, her return to Minnesota as his father was dying, began with a different kind of competition. If Patty’s competitive nature found its outlet in her family relationships, Walter’s competition was rooted in his friendship with Richard. Patty discovers this when Walter takes her to his home. Patty, who does not initially realize how privileged her New York upbringing was, is genuinely surprised by Walter’s meager origins. The family’s motel was presentable, but their home, situated behind the hotel, was not in great shape. The house was damp and seemed to be nearly falling into a creek behind the house. Walter’s mother, Dorothy, was a sweet, humble woman who was incredibly proud of Walter; she instilled in him his moral compass. Walter’s working-class origins explain why he wasn’t competitive with his family. His father was an alcoholic, his mother a homemaker, and his brothers do-nothings. Succeeding competitively in Walter’s family was easy.
As a result, Walter’s competitiveness with Richard was almost inextricable with his love for him, and Patty noticed it not long after she arrived in his hometown. When Dorothy goes back to the homestead to lie down, Walter takes Patty to one of the unoccupied motel rooms, ostensibly to fool around. Though they are both feeling amorous, Walter interrupts their foreplay to question Patty about her decision to go on the road trip with Richard. Patty insists that nothing physical happened between her and Richard, and that she wants to be with Walter. Walter confesses that he doesn’t trust Richard (and implies their competitive friendship) and senses that Patty isn’t one hundred percent committed to being with Walter. Initially, Walter seems to balk at continuing their lovemaking, but later does. When Gene (Walter’s father) dies a few days later, Patty is surprised by his reaction—Walter begins running as if he has been set free. Walter tracks down Richard to tell him of Gene’s passing, but Richard doesn’t have the money to return for the funeral; both Walter and Patty, for different reasons, are relieved Richard will not be coming. When they get married the following year, Patty’s desire for a small civil service also prevents Richard’s presence as Walter undoubtedly would have chosen Richard as his best man.
Patty eventually learns the origins of Richard and Walter’s friendship. The two opposites were attracted to each other because each gave a kind of cultural cachet they wouldn’t be able to find in their own circles. Richard escapes the trap of bad-boy musician elitism; Walter gets to hang out with one of the cool kids. Still, as their friendship progresses, even during Walter’s marriage to Patty, Walter continues to worry that he is putting too much into the relationship. He recalls a rather toxic girl he dated whom Richard slept with to prove his assertions of her poor character. The incident nearly derailed their friendship.
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Initially, the competitiveness between them subsides because Walter is more successful than Richard. As he builds his career and family, Richard’s attempts at being a musician largely fail to yield any results. Richard’s personal life is no better than his professional one. Richard has an ongoing relationship with Molly, a member of his band, the Traumatics. Walter dislikes Molly, who is depressive and has different goals for her relationship than Richard. Despite his insistence that they agreed upon something casual, Molly begins to think of what they have as something more permanent. When their differing viewpoints become incompatible, they fight and break up; Molly leaves the Traumatics.
The unexpected side effect of Richard’s break-up with Molly is reduced exposure for the Traumatics. Molly’s mother edits for The New York Times and periodically snuck in coverage of the band’s activities; these notices cease immediately after their break-up. Patty and Walter catch a gig Richard and the Traumatics book on their way through Minnesota. Patty is saddened by the meager crowd and the limited appeal of Richard’s music (one of the songs seems to blatantly criticize middle-class suburban life). On the drive home, Walter raves about Richard’s music and how underappreciated it is. When they get home, he and Patty make passionate love, and Walter sees no correlation between Patty spending time with Richard and having a renewed interest in sex. Patty describes her sex life as largely obligatory. For the most part, she gets nothing out of it and only submits to it to make Walter happy. By the time her kids are older, she thinks of it as something completely unnecessary and feels sorry for people who have to endure it.
At this point in her autobiography, Patty arrives chronologically at the events depicted briefly in the Introduction: her decaying relationship with Walter, Joey’s defection to the Monaghan’s house, and the Berglund’s eventual departure from Minnesota. As Patty presents evidence both for and against her decision making, she acknowledges some crucial truths. She has never been totally in love with Walter, even though he is with her. Her childhood experiences with her parents led her to be overly permissive with Joey. In addition, Patty’s poor parenting of Joey was an indirect lashing out at Walter for not being everything she wanted. Ultimately, Patty made some poor decisions, however well-intentioned some of them may have been. This led to her life’s unraveling as her kids were finishing up their teenage years.
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Patty now attributes her lack of career to her alcoholism. When the kids were young, they occupied more of her time; as teenagers, she has more time to herself and finds that the amount of alcohol she consumes increases steadily, glass by glass. The ensuing friction with Joey only exacerbates the situation. She often finds herself in a state of jittery insomnia in the middle of the night and drinks to calm her nerves. Even in her increasingly altered state, she realizes that Walter’s inability to relate to Joey stems from the fact that Joey isn’t like Walter. The added blow that Joey’s personality is much more similar to Richard’s attitude only makes the situation worse.
Richard finally bottoms out with his band, the Traumatics, after his friend and bandmate is injured in a serious auto accident. He then forms an alt-country band named Walnut Surprise with some musicians much younger than he is. His personal life is complicated when he decides to start a more permanent, monogamous relationship with one of his neighbors in the wake of the suicide of Molly, his longtime ex-girlfriend. Walter is dubious when Richard proclaims himself a changed man, even acting as a stepfather to the woman’s child. Eventually, Richard tires of the relationship and resumes his philandering, leading the woman to mount a campaign that eventually results in Richard being evicted from his low-rent apartment. Walter is not-so-secretly relieved to have the upper hand in their friendship and allows Richard to live in the house on Nameless Lake that he inherited from Dorothy. He pays Richard to refurbish the house, culminating with the building of a new deck. Richard, having few options, accepts.
Richard visits Patty and Walter at the height of the Joey situation and finds the Berglunds in dire marital straits. Walter’s ongoing disapproval of Patty only further fuels her drinking and self-pity. When Richard points out that Patty is drinking too much, she is embarrassed. For the first time, she sees herself as she must look to the outside world and is disgusted. In the following months, as Richard begins working on the Berglund’s lake house, Patty makes a concerted effort to clean herself up. She resumes exercising, stops drinking, and puts on some much-needed weight (after starving herself and subsisting mostly on liquor during Joey’s move). When summer arrives, the Berglunds go up to the house on Nameless Lake and note the improvements Richard has made. He is currently in the last stages of the renovation and is completing the new deck. The three have a nice visit together and Walter prepares for a retreat in Saskatchewan for work. When he leaves for his remote destination (which does not have phone or Internet), Patty finds herself alone with Richard for five days.
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Patty’s pulse quickens immediately when she is alone with Richard. She finds her thoughts consumed by him and then rebukes herself for imagining some fantasy scenario in her head. Their first day alone is filled with awkwardness as Patty is unsure how to act. Realizing the danger of the situation, she suggests to Richard that he can return to New York and should not feel obligated to stay and finish the deck; it is almost done and Walter can finish it when he returns. Richard is unsure whether Patty wants him to leave or is simply offering him a way out of finishing the work.
As the awkwardness continues, Patty finally admits her discomfort. She tells Richard that she is not able to be honest with Walter, and knows their marriage is in bad shape. Richard listens sympathetically, but also makes it clear that he does not want to become involved with Patty. Although secretly crushed, Patty pretends to be outraged that Richard thinks she would go to Walter’s best friend to break up her marriage. Richard decides he is going to leave the following morning. That night, Patty stays up reading War and Peace and finds many parallels between her life and the romantic issues in the novel. In the middle of the night, she goes to Richard’s room and climbs into his bed. He resists her initial advances, and she insists they can pretend they were both asleep and simply dreamed whatever might happen. Ultimately, Richard gives in to the physical temptation and makes love to Patty. Afterward, she returns to her room to sleep, vowing to pretend as if nothing happened.
In the morning, there is new tension between her and Richard as he prepares to leave. At lunchtime, they have torrid sex in the middle of the room and afterward try to sort out the problem they find themselves in. Patty would like to use the few days alone together to fulfill the desires they are not able to realize in real life. Richard is consumed by guilt and refuses to hurt his best friend. He tells Patty that he has always been attracted to her, but resisted out of respect for his friend. He also tells her that if she had come to live with him in New York when they were younger, he would not have been faithful and would not have made her happy. Richard resolves to go and Patty asks him to play a song for her before he goes. He plays one of his alt-country compositions and the song is so beautiful and painful that Patty asks him to stop in the middle. When he continues, she screams at him and all but throws him out of the house.
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Patty dives into reading to distract her from her feelings for Richard. When Walter returns, he ascribes the nearly-finished deck to Richard’s typical behavior—abandoning something just as it nears completion. Patty’s renewed interest in sex from her affair with Richard benefits Walter, who again does not seem to connect Richard’s presence to Patty’s sudden passion. They return home in a better place, but Patty and Richard’s plan to put the affair behind them does not go as smoothly as they intended. The two exchange secret emails and even plan another visit to Nameless Lake. Patty heads up there alone while the ever-working Walter stays behind. Richard is supposed to fly out to rendezvous at the house. Alone at first, Patty’s nerves tear at her and she gets wildly drunk. Following this, she becomes violently sick in response to her intoxication. She phones Richard and tells him she cannot go through with it.
Later plans emerge when Patty visits Jessica at college in an effort to repair their fractured relationship. Patty heads out to Philadelphia a day early so that Richard can meet her in her hotel. When she arrives, Richard calls and explains that he cannot come. Walter called him recently because he felt guilty for complaining about Patty to Richard during his disastrous visit before the renovation. Patty’s misery at Richard’s rejection leads her to drink too much during a dinner with Jessica and her new boyfriend, William. She regales her daughter with all kinds of stories about Eliza, and Jessica is obviously embarrassed by her mother’s behavior. The next day, Patty tries to apologize and explains her frustration that all of her time with Jessica has included William. When Patty proposes a girls’ night out, Jessica refuses. She reminds Patty of her ongoing favoritism toward Joey over the years while marveling that Patty has never appreciated Jessica’s self-sufficiency.
Shortly thereafter, Richard’s new band, Walnut Surprise, begins to take off. Walter, already jealous of Richard’s success, is insulted by Richard’s limited communications and visits. Walter assumes that Richard’s newfound fame has gone to his head and that he views Walter as merely a hanger-on. This leads Walter to dive into work in an attempt to combat Richard’s success with some of his own. When he gets offered a job in Washington, he accepts. Patty is initially excited about the change and only realizes after they make the move that she has once again made the wrong decision.
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By 2004, Richard and his band have achieved a certain degree of fame. Walnut Surprise’s initial success brings out the worst in Richard’s character. He spends as much (or more) as he makes and indulges in alcohol and drugs to great excess, alienating his band mates in the process. Eventually, Richard is arrested in Florida for Driving While Intoxicated and charged with possessing a controlled substance. He is placed on probation and forced to do extensive community service. When he finally returns to New York, he decides that his music career is over and goes back to building decks. His clients all tend to be hipster rich people who like the idea of having an artist build something for their houses. His current client makes this clear by asking him to do whatever he wanted and express his artistic point of view. The client’s wife, Lucy, delights in telling Richard that she thinks his music is overrated. She also prances around the house in skimpy clothing in hopes of attracting Richard’s attention while her husband is at work. Their son, Zachary, is a hipster who constantly wants to engage Richard in a discussion of his and other less-well-known music.
Like music, sex has lost its appeal to Richard, and he has been celibate for nearly two months (something of a record, given his proclivity for womanizing). One day, Zachary attempts another one of his music discussions, which Richard tries to dodge. Finally, Zachary reveals that a girl he likes named Caitlyn likes Richard’s music; Zachary wants to impress her and is wondering if Richard would be willing to do an interview and then meet her (he tells Richard that Caitlyn won’t even come to his house without the interview because she won’t believe that Zachary knows Richard). Richard agrees, inwardly vowing to break his celibacy by conquering Caitlyn. He is disgusted by himself, knowing that he will be using Caitlyn to vent his disdain for both her and, especially, Zachary.
When Richard sits down for the interview with Zachary after a long day’s work, he is initially dismissive of Zachary’s cookie-cutter interview questions. He spends the bulk of the interview comparing musicians to the makers of Chiclets gum. He thinks that musicians like Bob Dylan or Sheryl Crow pretend that their above the commercial aspect of music and its short-term shelf life. Indirectly, Richard communicates his disillusionment with music and his inability to reconcile success with artistic expression. Despite Richard’s recalcitrance, Zachary is ecstatic about the interview. Richard, on the other hand, worries that his criticism of known and respected musicians simply makes him sound bitter. Regardless, he vows to meet with Zachary and Caitlyn the following afternoon.
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At home, Richard’s phone rings, and he sees on the caller ID that the number belongs to Walter Berglund. Worried that Patty might be contacting him and still invested in his own isolation, Richard doesn’t answer; however, the message is from Walter, who is going to be in New York the next day and wants to meet with Richard to talk over an idea with him. At the last moment, Richard picks up and the awkwardness between them is evidence of their nearly two years without contact. Richard resists the urge to ask about Patty because he is unsure whether or not Patty confessed her tryst with Richard to Walter. Walter doesn’t seem to know anything about it, and Richard agrees to meet him the next day. Walter makes a point of mentioning his comely new assistant, knowing it will tempt Richard. To do so, Richard must cancel the meeting with Zachary and Caitlyn, and secretly delights in prolonging their anticipation.
The next day, Richard goes to meet Walter at a bar covered in his usual dust and grime from his day’s labors. When he arrives, Richard finds Walter in a well-tailored suit in the company of an attractive, and considerably younger, woman of Indian descent. As he approaches them, Richard reads her body language and instantly realizes that the young woman is attracted to Walter. This ignites the ages-old competitiveness that has always partially defined Richard’s relationship with Walter, and Richard wants to see if he can work his charms on the girl.
The young woman is introduced as Lalitha, and she quickly makes it clear that she has no physical or romantic interest in Richard. In fact, she hangs on Walter’s every word throughout the meeting. Walter and Lalitha work for a man named Vin Haven, who formed the Cerulean Mountain Trust. The Trust has a relationship to MTR, or Mountaintop Removal, a controversial practice involving the razing of the peaks of mountains for coal mining assessment. Ostensibly, the Cerulean Mountain Trust was established to protect the Cerulean Warbler, a rare bird whose numbers are drastically shrinking. As Walter explains their business practices, it becomes clear that the Trust is really a cover for a real estate scheme in which Vin Haven purchases land and then resells it at a much higher price for profit.
Given Vin Haven’s real motives, he gives Walter great latitude in terms of how he manages the Trust’s funds. He and Lalitha have decided to use the money without Vin Haven’s knowledge to address their real environmental concern: overpopulation. They are concerned that the skyrocketing population growth will deplete the Earth’s natural resources and eventually render it unlivable. Richard becomes aware of a kind of mutual fanaticism in the back-and-forth pitching Lalitha and Walter do. They want Richard to use his musical connections to organize a music festival to raise awareness of overpopulation and make it “uncool” for the next generation to have too many kids. Richard promises to think about their proposal despite his wariness.
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Outside the bar, Richard and Walter say goodbye to Lalitha and walk to the train station together. Still hesitant to ask about Patty, Richard instead questions him about Lalitha. Walter reveals that she is in a long-distance relationship with a guy who lives in Nashville; however, Walter thinks the relationship is close to ending. He confides in Richard that the guy’s old-school Indian values conflict with Lalitha’s desire for independence and a career. Walter has advised Lalitha that she doesn’t have to sacrifice her needs for his. As Walter explains what he calls a father-daughter dynamic between the two of them, Richard interjects to ask if Walter is aware that Lalitha is in love with him. Walter is embarrassed, but senses the truth in Walter’s statement. Richard asks if Walter ever fantasizes about Lalitha sexually, but Walter flatly denies this. Ever the feminist, Walter asserts that female-to-male oral sex has inherently demeaning qualities; Richard disagrees, finding Walter’s theoretical arguments at odds with basic male urges.
As they take the subway to the train station, Richard notices a young man observe him in recognition. Dreading what might happen next, Richard prepares himself as the man approaches him and asks him about his music. Richard is embarrassed and tries to keep the chat short, but he can feel Walter watching the whole exchange enviously. When Walter asks him about being famous, Richard explains that he doesn’t always want fame, but admits he would feel its absence if it wasn’t there.
When Walter’s train back to Washington is delayed, Richard decides to keep him company. He buys Walter a soda since Walter doesn’t drink, and finally broaches the subject of Patty. Walter admits that she’s in a deep depression. She seemed fine when they first moved to Washington, but she soon reverted back to her old unhappiness. She saw a therapist (who recommended writing an autobiographical journal) and started some medication, but stopped because she didn’t like how it felt. After months of aimlessness, Walter insisted that Patty get a job, so she finally decided to take a job working at the front desk of a gym. Walter is exasperated and can’t understand why someone as fantastic as Patty would give up on her own incredible potential. Walter says that Patty was doing something bad with her earnings, but doesn’t elaborate. He is especially chagrined that Patty wants to get breast implants; Walter cannot understand this because he thinks she is beautiful the way she is. He also confesses the Lalitha lives with them and she and Patty don’t speak to each other. Patty, like Richard, sees Lalitha’s desire for Walter.
As the conversation ends, Walter asks Richard why he has been out of touch for so long. Walter gets emotional, admitting his own insecurities: he assumed that once Richard became famous, he realized that Walter wasn’t cool and ditched him. Walter is hurt that Richard didn’t acknowledge how he and Patty helped him by sustaining his income while he wrote the songs on his hit album, Nameless Lake. Richard feels anger rising up within him and decides he should clear the air with Walter.
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The novel shifts to Joey’s perspective as he enters his first year of college in Virginia, backtracking to the time before his parents moved to Washington, DC. Joey recalls his touchy relationship with his parents, Walter and Patty, when he decided to move next door into the Monaghan’s house. Though he wouldn’t call Connie his girlfriend, Joey knew that she was one of the reasons he moved into the house, which Blake (Carol’s younger boyfriend) had renovated. Joey’s first semester of college begins with the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The campus responds quickly with talks, vigils and other services and meetings, all of which Joey finds hypocritical and disdainful. Despite his attempts to seem above the national mood, the attacks make a significant alteration in his plans with Connie.
Before leaving for college, Joey tried to prepare Connie for their separation by insisting that they have limited contact with each other to see if the relationship could withstand the distance. In reality, Joey hoped this would begin the process of splitting them apart permanently. After the attacks, he arranges for Connie to come visit him (against his better judgment). He schedules it during a Jewish holiday so that his roommate will not be around. In addition to having copious sex, Joey and Connie talk about their future. Joey is taken aback by Connie’s complete lack of self and willingness to do whatever he wants. He encourages her to apply and go to college to get an education. She makes it clear that she will do it because he wants her to, not because she wants to expand her horizons or meet someone new. At the end of the weekend, he takes Connie to the bus station and drops her off, once again swearing off contact for the foreseeable future. Connie agrees without any signs of distress.
In Connie’s absence, Joey is unable to use other women to help himself forget Connie. The type of girls willing to make themselves sexually available to Joey repel him because of that very willingness. His frequent masturbation does little to curb his feelings for Connie. After a long period of silence, Carol calls Joey out of concern for her daughter. Carol tells Joey that Connie has stopped eating and seems very depressed and withdrawn. She reprimands Joey for casting aside Connie after Carol and her family took Joey in to live with them. Joey attempts to dodge his responsibility, but Carol informs him that she will continue hounding him until he renews contact with Connie. She also tries to pressure him into coming home to Minnesota for Thanksgiving week to spend some time with them; Joey refuses.
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Joey is shaken by Carol’s clear understanding of his selfishness. After the dressing down, he decides to call his mother, Patty. As they make chit-chat about nothing in particular, Joey finds himself reflecting on their relationship. As a young child, Patty had indulged Joey and gone to great lengths to forge a close relationship with him. As he became a teenager, he fought against that closeness and tried to assert his independence. She fought back by criticizing anything that seemed like a threat, like something that he might find more interesting than her. When his grandmother was dying and his parents went away, Joey deliberately threw a party to retaliate against his parents and his goody-two-shoes sister, Jessica. He even had loud sex with Connie in the room next to Jessica’s to keep her awake. He counted on her telling her parents; unfortunately, his grandmother died and the timing of his escapades became incredibly poor. His whole family gave him the cold shoulder throughout the weeks after Dorothy’s passing.
Patty decided to break the silence by once again making Joey her confidante. She told him the entire sordid story of Eliza, and how she still felt guilty for dropping her as a friend. She also decides to tell Joey about her rape even though she won’t discuss it with Jessica. The admission makes Joey feel guilty for ever thinking badly of his mother; however, this guilt eventually transforms into anger against Patty.
As they talk on the phone, Patty tries to explain that she doesn’t just love Joey because he’s her child and she has to; she loves him for who he is. As she tries to communicate this to him, Joey keeps shutting the conversation down. Patty offers to send him some more money since he is running low, provided they don’t tell Walter. Joey needs the money, but again feels conflicted about being forced into a secret club with his needy mother. He offhandedly agrees to the check, but shuts down Patty’s attempts at expressing love. She ends the conversation quickly, and Joey knows he has hurt her deeply.
The combination of Carol and Patty leaves Joey feeling uncharacteristically emotional. Not wanting anyone to see his weakness, Joey retreats to the communal bathroom and cries in one of the stalls. He knows that his mother is intelligent, which made it all the more frustrating that she kept screwing up her life. He also knows that Patty knows he actually does understand, even though he tries to pretend he doesn’t so he can keep her at a distance. After weeping, Joey masturbates and returns to his dorm room.
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Joey returns to his dorm room and finds Jonathan, his roommate, agonizing over New York’s dire baseball situation. Joey, who has always made it a point to be relatively guarded about his family life, finds himself opening up to Jonathan. He tells Jonathan that his mother hates New York because her family is there; Joey knows a little bit about his grandmother’s political career, but only met her briefly as a young child. He also has several aunts whom he has never met. In the course of the discussion, he mentions that Patty is half Jewish, making Joey one quarter Jewish. Jonathan, who is also Jewish, is astounded by the news. Since Joey will be spending Thanksgiving break with Jonathan’s family, Joey will have an opportunity to learn more about his heritage since his parents are not religious. Joey is also excited by the prospect of meeting Jenna, Jonathan’s unbelievably gorgeous sister.
When Joey finally breaks down and calls Connie, she is her usual cool self and does the best she can to dispel the ideas of depression that Carol gave Joey. He tries to encourage her to see a doctor to perhaps get on an antidepressant, but she insists she is fine and her mother has exaggerated her melancholy. Joey still wants to maintain a distance, and Connie tells him he can still see other people, but she won’t. He also tells her that Carol wanted him to come home to see her for Thanksgiving break, but she tells him it won’t be necessary. The conversation then evolves into phone sex, which proves gratifying for the both of them. This opens a window of excuse for him to call Connie more often. Even though the calls are supposedly just sex, he finds himself having more feelings for Connie than he ever had. Their frequent phone calls (multiple times per week) find them delving into increasingly alternative sexual fantasies.
Joey also tells Jonathan about his pseudo-relationship with Connie (minus the kinky phone sex) and Jonathan is increasingly surprised by Joey’s secretive nature. When Thanksgiving break arrives, Jonathan brings Joey to meet his family. Jonathan makes it clear that he knows about Joey’s infatuation with his sister and warns him that she is only interested in older guys who make lots of money. When they arrive, Joey meets Jonathan’s parents, who seem very interested is Joey’s desire to learn more about his Jewish heritage. When Joey calls his parents to check in, his father curtly hands him over to his mother after a few formalities. Joey laments his strained relationship with his father. He wishes for a closer relationship and is angry that Walter never put a limit on Patty’s machinations to be best friends with Joey.
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At dinner with Jonathan’s parents, Jonathan’s father pontificates about Middle Eastern politics and its impact on Israel. Joey, eager to get Jenna’s attention, participates in the discussion and Jonathan’s father seems impressed by Joey’s acumen. After dinner, Jonathan’s father joins them for a billiard game called Cowboy Pool. During the game, Jonathan’s father offers Joey a well-paying summer job working for him. That, coupled with Jonathan’s losing the game, puts Jonathan in a bad mood. After his father left, he turns on Joey, obviously jealous of Joey earning so much of his father’s attention so quickly. The two had planned to accompany Jenna to New York City to stay in her absent boyfriend’s apartment, but Jonathan accuses Joey of being his friend simply to get closer to his sister.
Jonathan eventually agrees to the trip. However, once they arrive in New York, he doesn’t want to do any sightseeing, and prefers to sulk in the apartment. After a fight, Joey storms out of the apartment, calls Connie, and tells her he loves her. The next morning, Joey wakes up early and finds himself alone with Jenna. He tries to alternately impress her with his knowledge and pick her brain about Jonathan’s bad mood. She explains that her father’s success has been hard on Jonathan and he never knows if someone wants to be friends with him or wants access to his dad.
During Thanksgiving break, Joey looks up his aunt, Abigail, and she agrees to meet him for coffee. The meeting is pleasant enough, though Abigail is extremely eccentric and spends much of their time together rambling about her artistic pursuits. She tends to bemoan artists more successful than she is (which is almost everyone) and organizations that refuse to cast her. The meeting proves fortuitous, because Abigail asks Joey to cat-sit in her apartment over Christmas break while she attends a miming workshop in France. When Joey arrives at Christmas, he finds the apartment meager and not particularly clean (the plumbing in the bathroom is particularly dodgy). When he calls his parents to tell them where he is, his father is furious with Joey for hurting his mother. Joey is equally angry with his father for always taking his mother’s side. The conversation ends badly, and the lonely Joey soon calls Connie and arranges for her to take a bus to New York City to be with him. Connie arrives soon, having quit her job to come be with Joey. They make love and Connie comforts an emotional Joey. Just as he seems to be deepening his commitment to Connie, Jenna emails him. She invites him to meet her boyfriend so that he can learn more about the stock trade. Joey considers his options as he and Connie get high.
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As Walter travels with Lalitha, he marvels at her fast, slightly dangerous driving style. He cedes the driving duties to her because traffic issues tend to aggravate his temper. Lalitha’s wild driving, however hair-raising, was preferable (and only added to her mystique). As they await the first day of razing at the land they’ve acquired for the Cerulean Mountain Trust (the fund Walter manages for his boss, Vin Haven), Lalitha begs Walter to celebrate by getting some drinks. Walter, whose father and incarcerated brother were alcoholics, needs some persuading.
The most challenging aspect of securing the land was convincing the people living on the land to sell their homes to the trust and move. Initially, Lalitha and Walter successfully convince most of the homeowners through a generous package offered by the Trust. One section of the community, headed by an irascible man named Mathis, refuses to sell. Lalitha and Walter go to visit Mathis unannounced and Walter loses his temper when Mathis refuses to accept his deal. Mathis threatens them with a gun, so when the two leave, Lalitha suggests that she deal with the community going forward. The solution she comes up with is to add an armor factory to the deal they offer the community. This will guarantee them jobs, health insurance, retirements and appeal to their nationalism because the armor is being built for soldiers. Vin Haven, whose wealth and long career have left him well connected with the Texas elite (including the Bush administration), is able to use his influence to help secure the deal.
Walter both admires and envies Lalitha, whose youthful spirit he believes has been driving the success of the Trust’s efforts. Walter’s angry outbursts on more than one occasion results in Lalitha taking over. As Lalitha speeds along, he admits that he is excited that the work is finally beginning but nervous about the press conference announcing it the following Monday. The Mountain Top Removal (MTR) the trust will be performing on the land is controversial with environmentalists, especially an independent group led by a woman named Jocelyn Zorn. Even though the razed mountain tops will eventually revert to a natural environment (in Walter’s justification), the process can pollute the air and water by releasing hazardous gases and materials. Lalitha tries to convince Walter that he will be able to sell the project’s good points at the press conference and downplay its negative side effects.
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Walter and Lalitha stop at a motel for the night, and Walter notes the temptation of sleeping in an adjoining room next to Lalitha. They freshen up and head downstairs for dinner and drinks; Walter checks his email and sees a message from Richard indicating that he is ready to meet with him about the proposed music festival. They both order rich, indulgent meals and Lalitha talks Walter into ordering a beer. As they wait for their dinner, Lalitha has several drinks and loosens up. Walter can feel the sexual and romantic tension between them building, and feels guilty out of his duty to Patty. However unhappy Patty may be, Walter feels it is his responsibility to love her and try to make her feel better.
During the dinner, Lalitha suddenly asks Walter if she should get a tubal ligation. Since she (like Walter) is concerned with the overpopulation of the earth and its effects on the environment, she doesn’t want to have children. The problem is that Lalitha’s long-distance boyfriend is a very traditional Indian man and wants a family. Walter senses that the relationship may not last, and Lalitha admits her exasperation. Walter mentions Richard’s email and his general distrust of him despite their friendship. Lalitha guesses that he distrusts Richard around Lalitha and makes it clear that Richard’s coolness is an act designed to cover up his insecurities. Lalitha does not want someone cool, and she likes Walter because he isn’t. Walter tries to subvert the unexpectedly personal nature of the conversation by saying that he feels fatherly toward Lalitha. This doesn’t stop her from confessing that she loves him. He loves her too, but tries to pretend it is not romantic. He also tells her not to get sterilized as she is young and could change her mind in the future (Walter hates himself for considering that he would like to have a baby with her).
The liquor has made Lalitha incredibly tipsy and she seems close to passing out. Walter has their dinners boxed up and helps Lalitha out to the car. When he returns to the restaurant for the food and their things, he is harassed by a redneck who assumes them to be an interracial couple. Walter takes Lalitha back to her room and eats his dinner while she dozes. His daughter, Jessica, calls to confirm their meeting this weekend. He has asked for her input about the concert because it is designed to appeal to someone of her generation. When Jessica complains of a perverted older man interested in one of her friends, Walter sees himself in comparison. When he hangs up, he curls up on Lalitha’s bed and cries. She stirs and comforts him; he makes her promise not to get her tubes tied and she agrees. He returns to his room, determined to keep some kind of professional distance between them.
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In his room, Walter receives an email from a Times reporter wanting to ask him about the Trust. Walter is concerned that information about the project (which he and Lalitha have strived to keep under wraps) has leaked to the press. He tells the reporter of the press conference on Monday, but secretly worries that they should move it up in case any more details leak. Mistakenly, Walter calls Patty for comfort. Walter tries to justify what the trust is doing, but Patty remains noncommittal, again insinuating that Walter is sleeping with Lalitha. Before they went on the trip, Patty attempted to give Walter “permission” to initiate a sexual relationship with Lalitha. No amount of protest from Walter could convince Patty, who holed up in her room weeping.
The conversation ends badly, and Walter recalls earlier fights with Patty. Not long ago, Walter discovered that Patty had been keeping financial secrets from him. Since Patty always balanced the checkbook, Walter hadn’t noticed right away. What he found was that Patty was withdrawing cash once a month, usually in five-hundred-dollar increments. He confronted Patty about it, and she confessed that she had been secretly sending Joey money at college. She tried to explain that Joey was struggling to keep up socially with his rich peers, but Walter is outraged that she would lie to Walter to give Joey beer money.
The fight escalated, and Walter extracted a confession from Patty that she didn’t really believe in or care about his work. He uses this to accuse her of not having a passion for anything and refusing to get a job. Walter cruelly points out that what few jobs she’s had have been short-lived and provided by friends or family. Patty insists that Walter only cares about her working because of his endless competition with Richard. Despite their argument, Patty goes out the very next day and gets a job. The job is at a local gym, which dismays Walter because people he knows might see her there. Patty again accuses Walter of competitiveness and elitism, as well as not being happy with the fact that she got a job as he requested. The job initially has a positive effect on Patty, who even uses her job to taunt Lalitha (who still lives in the upstairs apartment). Patty starts dressing better when she goes out, so the jealous Walter starts going to her gym to keep an eye on her.
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The next morning, Walter and Lalitha both wake up extremely hung over. Breakfast between them is tense as Lalitha is still stinging from Walter’s rejection the previous night; he doesn’t help matters by mentioning he spoke with Patty. In fact, Patty told Walter about an article in the paper that explains some of what the Trust has been up to. Lalitha reads the article on her phone and insists the damage will be minimal. She, too, thinks the press conference could be moved up, but Walter needs the weekend meeting to gear up for it. When they get to the car, Walter breaks the tension by telling Lalitha how much he needs her on the project. Suddenly, she climbs into his seat, straddles him, and kisses him passionately. Walter finally seems to be giving in to his feelings for her. The both freely admit that they are in love with each other. Before things get too out of hand, Lalitha returns to her seat, and the two set out on the road to see the first day of work.
Lalitha zooms to the site, but as they pull up they see a makeshift blockade created by the cars of Jocelyn Zorn and her fellow protestors (mostly women north of fifty). When they arrive, Zorn tries to question Walter about the nature of the work being done on the site. Both Walter and Lalitha avoid giving out any details, even inviting Jocelyn to the press conference. Jocelyn refuses to move her cars from in front of the fence the construction workers set up. The workers will not allow Walter to use any of their vehicles/equipment to take Lalitha up the long route to the site. Since they are in the mountains, no one has cell phone reception. Walter’s anger again begins to explode as more workers and vehicles line up behind them. Lalitha sends him back to the car while she works her charms on everyone involved. When the workers radio down to have someone call the police to remove Zorn and the other protesters, Lalitha insists that she and Walter leave. Knowing Jocelyn Zorn’s predilection for media attention, Lalitha wants to make sure they are not around when the police (and possibly the press) show up. After much careful shuffling of the construction vehicles, Lalitha and Walter make their way down the mountain, where thankfully their cell phone service returns. Walter is taken off guard when he receives a call from Joey. With his mind still spinning from all of the events up at the site, Walter does not immediately realize that Joey is in trouble.
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While Richard finishes building the deck for Zachary’s father and attempts to "skylight-peep" on the man’s wife, Zachary posts his interview with Richard online to impress Caitlyn. One day, Caitlyn and two of her girlfriends show up to talk to Richard. While Caitlyn and one of her friends try maintain a too-cool-for-school attitude, the chubbier, plainer friend gushes over Richard and brings him homemade bread. Despite his earlier vow to claim Caitlyn as a sexual conquest to express his didain for both her and Zachary, Richard now finds himself consumed with thoughts of Patty again. Disgusted by Caitlyn’s disdain for her chubby friend (named Sarah), Richard purposefully lavishes all of his attention on Sarah and ignores Caitlyn.
On Friday night, Richard takes the train down to Washington for a weekend meeting with Walter, Lalitha, and Jessica. After a minor altercation with some inconsiderate hipsters in the seat in front of him, Richard arrives in D.C. and makes his way towards the Berglund’s mansion. He is greeted at the door by Jessica, who is in the middle of an altercation with Lalitha. Jessica insists that Lalitha is too old (at 27) to be in touch with youth culture and is misleading Walter with her ideas about what young people respond to. Richard feels the tension between the two of them and recognizes it as something that has been simmering for a long time.
Eventually, Jessica shows Richard to a room and later meets him for dinner. She explains that she is obliged to be the hostess because her mother and father are both working. Over dinner, Richard tries to gauge the dynamic of the family. Jessica is disdainful of Joey, whom she feels is morphing into a Republican. She is also alternately critical of Patty and Lalitha; she blames the former for lacking drive and favoring Joey while she is frustrated with the latter for complicating the already tense dynamic between Walter and Patty. Jessica even says that she tried to befriend Lalitha by asking to cook Indian food with her; unfortunately, Lalitha cannot cook and did not seem interested in the connection Jessica was trying to establish. When Jessica laments her dating life, Richard tries to reassure her that she is an attractive catch; he worries that his compliment might have sounded like a come-on. This worry is confirmed when Jessica behaves flirtatiously toward him. He shuts down their interaction abruptly and Jessica retreats to her room, hurt and perplexed by their conversation.
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The next morning, Richard finds Walter, Jessica, and Lalitha sitting around the table waiting for him to arrive so that they can begin their meeting. Richard, unaware that they were starting that early, decides to settle in quietly to get the lay of the land before offering much feedback. He also finds himself preoccupied with Patty, wondering when he will see her and what both his and her reaction will be. He has all but decided to win Patty back and run away with her no matter the cost.
The beginning of the meeting reveals some of the tension between Lalitha and Jessica, who picks at all of her ideas while barely masking her resentment for the woman she holds responsible for her parents’ dysfunctional marriage. The main problem that the group acknowledges at the onset is that everything in contemporary culture goes against the idea of limiting procreation. Walter once again ties it firmly to the country’s capitalist ideals, in which continued growth is always desired, if not demanded. In addition, people view procreation as a personal liberty that no government or organization should control.
The wheel-spinning and Walter’s sermonizing are interrupted by Patty, dressed to the nines on her way to work. Jessica upbraids Patty for her long working hours and insinuates that Patty is a bad hostess for not being home to cook and serve dinner. The group agrees to go out to dinner and Patty quickly departs. As the meeting rambles on, Richard finds himself dissecting everything about Patty’s visit, and assumes that her dressing up was for his benefit and a sign that she still hoped he would reconnect with her. The bulk of the afternoon is spent hashing out possible names for the slogan of the music festival. After ruling out numerous ones with negative language, they decide on the Free Space Movement. Jessica also asserts that they do numerous regional festivals leading up to the big one that culminates with performances by major bands and musicians.
After the meeting Walter and Richard go out for dinner. Richard has been chewing tobacco all day and is wired form the nicotine. Richard again tries to find out if Walter and Lalitha’s relationship has turned physical. The vehemence of Walter’s offense (and his unwillingness to go into specifics) leads Richard to believe there are feelings, if no measurable physical contact yet. Later, they go to a concert of the popular band Bright Eyes so that Richard can use his contacts to get them involved with Free Space. Richard loathes the band for its performed sincerity while Walter marvels at their talent. On the way home, Richard admits to Walter that he might not be able to commit to participating in Free Space’s music festival. Walter tells them that any participation, however small, is helpful and appreciated.
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That night, after Walter has gone to bed, Richard continues to prowl around the house, both from his ongoing nicotine rush and a desire to see Patty. He stops by a workroom that Patty sometimes sleeps in and listens for her. Later, her returns and lets himself in; the two go down to have tea (a move Patty insists will preserve propriety). After some mild chitchat about their mutual exasperation with twenty-first-century youth culture, they finally get to the purpose of their meeting: their repeatedly aborted relationship. Richard begs Patty to go with him and start over but she refuses. Richard cannot fathom why she wants to stay with Walter when the both make each other so unhappy. She tells Richard that when he took on the road trip to New York all of those years ago, he had made his choice. She realizes that Richard had always chosen Walter and always would. She can clearly envision her future with Richard in which he philanders and she becomes miserable. Despite his protests that their future would not be that way, she continues to balk at the idea of leaving with him. He points out to her that Walter is in love with Lalitha, and Patty reveals that their attachment has hurt her deeply. She reveals to Richard that Walter came home recently and she could see a change in him. She recognized that his feelings for Patty had finally ended and she felt heartbroken. Abruptly, Patty terminates the conversation and heads upstairs to bed. When Richard turns in later, he finds a manuscript on his bed: Mistakes Were Made, Patty’s autobiography she wrote as part of her therapy (which makes up the bulk of the earlier sections of the novel).
Richard spends nearly all night reading it and finds himself most interested in the passages that deal with him. He is saddened to realize that in Patty’s eyes, Walter had won the lifelong competition with Richard. The next morning, Richard gets up, packs, and leaves a copy of the manuscript in Walter’s office, hoping the truth will somehow do the Berglunds good. Then he makes his departure without saying goodbye to anyone. On the way over the bridge to New Jersey, Richard stops in the middle and considers diving off to end his life. He decides against it, and returns home to work on his music and reconnect with his band mates. Over the next few days, he establishes some tenuous reconnection with Walnut Surprise and beds a forty-something woman. When he returns to his apartment, he is surprised to find Patty waiting for him. Walter has thrown her out.
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Joey spent the remainder of his college career juggling the two very different women: the obedient, alarmingly selfless Connie and the beautiful but materialistic Jenna (whose brother, Jonathan, was still none too pleased at his roommate’s interest in his sister). The situation becomes more complicated when Joey secretly marries Connie in a moment of romantic whimsy. Now several months later, he is working hard to convince her to keep it a secret and remain apart, which she agrees to do despite it obviously making her unhappy.
Joey also starts a disreputable relationship with Kenny Bartles, a connection he made while working at the summer job Jonathan’s dad provided him. Initially, he and Kenny become involved with a bread-making operation that sells to war zones in the Middle East. Kenny then ratchets up the ante on his war profiteering by proposing a more lucrative arrangement: buying used truck parts cheaply in Europe and South America and then transporting them to Iraq for resale at a much higher price. The demand was there since so many of the trucks used by the military had breakdowns or needed parts.
Joey’s personal and professional lives intersect in an unlikely way when Jonathan and Jenna’s mother breaks her leg skiing. This leaves Jenna without a companion for an upcoming trip to Argentina that she was supposed to take with her mother. Joey and Jenna’s constant calls and texts make him a logical choice to be her new traveling partner. While in South America, Joey will also travel to Paraguay to secure the remaining tons of auto parts and scrap needed for his deal with Kenny. In order to secure the parts, Joey convinced Connie to give him money from her absentee father’s trust fund so that he could secure a loan against it for more money.
The main issue was dodging Connie’s questions about the trip (as well as putting off their long-planned honeymoon). While talking to Connie on the phone, Joey puts his wedding ring in his mouth and accidentally swallows it. After he gets off of the phone, he goes to the ER to have himself checked out. Panicked at the thought of losing the ring, he begs the doctor to remove it surgically, but the doctor informs him he’ll simply have to wait for it to pass through his system and come out in his stool. He continues with his upcoming flight to South America with Jenna despite the symbol of commitment currently lodged in his intestinal tract.
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The story flashes back a year to the events leading up to Joey and Connie’s wedding. Connie’s depression is compounded by her recent withdrawal from college. In the fall semester, Connie attends a college within driving distance of Joey’s school. Despite their proximity, Joey still insists on minimal contact between them. In addition, Connie’s roommates prove to be difficult and torment her (in part about her missing boyfriend). Connie ends up on academic probation when she fails to show up for some of her exams (despite doing very well on the others). She returns briefly in the spring, but refuses to leave her room. Eventually, Health Services sends her home to Minnesota and she withdraws from college.
Joey discovers most of this from Carol, whose worry about Connie is concurrently a not-so-thinly disguised admonishment of Joey. Worn down, Joey decides to visit Connie in Minnesota for a week and finds her emaciated and horribly depressed. He asks his mom for advice and she reveals that she has been taking antidepressants too, but will be going off of them. Joey tries to impress his father with his hard work for Kenny’s company that sells bread to the Middle East, but Walter is disgusted that his son is cashing in on the war.
Shortly after that, Walter discovers that Patty has been supplementing Joey’s income and puts a stop to the payments. He checks in with Connie who reveals that she has been having an affair with her boss at the restaurant where she has been waitressing. Despite the fact that Joey overcame his initial aversion to easy girls and has regularly slept with other girls without telling Connie (a hypocrisy that Jenna regularly points out to him), he is upset with Connie and doesn’t talk to her for awhile.
In August, his aunt asks him to house/cat-sit again and he agrees. Kenny calls him and reveals his plan to sell truck parts overseas, but explains that Joey will need to come up with cash to get in on the deal. He tells Connie about it, and she instantly offers to empty out her trust fund because she’s so grateful that Joey has resumed contact with her. They make plans for Connie to visit Joey in New York, in part to reconnect and in part to get the money for Joey’s new business venture. With Connie’s fifty thousand dollars and his own savings, Joey would be able to purchase the cheap, low-quality truck parts and then ship them to Kenny in the Middle East. He begins to research sources for the parts in Europe and South America.
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Connie is overjoyed to be reunited with Joey in New York. One of the first things Joey notices, however, is a series of self-inflicted cuts on her arms. Connie downplays them and insists she hasn’t been suicidal; she simply cut herself for each day Joey didn’t call. She gives him a cashier’s check with her trust-fund money and the two of them make love repeatedly. Joey, feeling the need to give something back to Connie that is equivalent to her gift, asks her to marry him. They find a Hassidic jeweler and pick out rings for their ceremony. Outside the jewelry shop, they run into Casey, and old friend of Joey’s from college. He jokingly asks if they’re picking out engagement rings and Joey denies it; later, Connie worries that Joey is embarrassed by her. The next day, he marries Connie and continues to keep it a secret, especially from his family.
The story returns to Joey’s impending trip to South America with Jenna. The ring is still somewhere in his possession, but he is determined to go through with the trip in the hopes that Jenna will take their flirting to the next level. Jonathan is particularly disapproving of Joey’s trip. In college, Jonathan met Connie several times and took an instant liking to her. Jonathan is hopelessly awkward with girls and the fact that Connie was totally devoted to Joey made it easier to talk to her. They struck up a friendship and communicate regularly. Jonathan feels conflicted about having to lie to Connie if she calls him to ask about Joey’s trip.
Undaunted, Joey meets Jenna at the airport and boards the plane. She has recently broken off her engagement with her fiancé, which Joey hopes bodes well for the trip. On the way down, Jenna remains fully self-absorbed and ignores Joey, even when he reveals his concerns about the business deal he has to broker in Paraguay. When he calls her on her rudeness, she is not apologetic, but asks Joey to accept her as she is.
When they arrive in South America, they—along with several other English-speaking visitors—are greeted by Felix, a native Argentine who takes them to their resort. Along the way, Jenna and Felix converse in Spanish, and Joey is left to make conversation with a harried mother while attempting to drown out the ramblings of a stuffy British bore named Jeremy. As they make their way to the resort, Joey thinks about the people he most loves and respects: Connie, Jonathan, and his father. He has disappointed all three of them, and the latter two have told him that his lack of conscience sickens them.
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Once they are firmly ensconced in the resort, Felix takes Jenna and Joey to see the horses since Jenna wants to spend most of her vacation on horseback. Joey is irritated by how Felix speaks Spanish to Jenna and his coworkers in front of him. That night, Joey and Jenna have a luxurious dinner and Joey indulges with a lot of wine. At the hotel that night, they repeatedly try to make love but Joey has difficulty performing. He ascribes it to the wine, but his guilt about Connie weighs heavily on him. Jenna, whose own sexuality has been altered by her antidepressant, does not seem overly concerned.
The next morning, Joey wakes up having to go to the bathroom. He knows he must find the ring in his waste, and when a fork fails to help him find it, he has to must use his hands. In the middle of this, Jenna wakes up and begins pounding on the door demanding access to her tampons. Finally, Joey finds his ring in his feces and hurriedly cleans up before admitting Jenna. The entire embarrassing experience brings about an important change in Joey. He realizes that if he is willing to comb through his own fecal material, his relationship with Connie must mean more than a dalliance with Jenna.
He checks his messages, which include one from Kenny reminding him that he needs to export tons of parts by the end of January, which is only two weeks away. He explains to Jenna that he has to depart and the two have a huge fight, which doesn’t perturb Joey as much as it would have before his realization. He sees Jenna as relatively pathetic, and deflects most of her anger. He travels to Paraguay, and negotiates a cheap deal with a shady former military man for a yard full of rusty dilapidated parts. Surveying the junk he has agreed to purchase, Joey has a sudden attack of conscience, worrying that the trucks in the Middle East used by U.S. military will be outfitted with these parts will break down and endanger the lives of the soldiers.
Joey consults Connie (who doesn’t mind if he loses her money), Kenny (who does), and LBI (the company for whom Kenny is brokering the deal). Finally, Joey talks to Jonathan, and his admission of his falling out with Jenna helps to restore their friendship. Jonathan tells him that he is contractually obliged to both Kenny and LBI, who will sue him if he tries to blow the whistle on their shady dealings. Reluctantly, Joey finishes the deal and waits for his $850,000 to get laundered and sent to him so that he can pay back Connie and the bank. Still, the regular reports from the Middle East fill Joey with anxiety that his parts may cause the deaths of soldiers. Reluctantly, Joey decides to call his father, whose moral compass Joey has always admired even when he resented it, to ask him what to do about the money and whether or not to blow the whistle on the entire operation.
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As a child, Walter was not aware of the long line of stubborn Swedish men from whom he came, but reflecting on it as an adult he sees the relationship clearly. Walter’s grandfather, Einar, was a stern and exacting man and none of his children felt this as keenly as Gene, Walter’s father. Gene grew up determined to be as unlike his own father as possible. Einar had forsaken his whole family and moved to the United States to start a new life. Einar’s drive for success ironically fueled Gene’s alcoholism as he grew up. When Gene married Dorothy, he soon bought the rundown motel that became the family business. As the largely unsuccessful business mired the family in debt and poverty, Gene retreated further into the liquor bottle. Even Dorothy’s pleas for him to stop had no effect.
Walter’s brightest childhood memory involving Gene was the family’s annual candy-making. Every holiday season, the Berglund clan would make countless tins of toffee and sweets and take them around to friends, family and neighbors. Since the undertaking was massive, Gene, Walter, Dorothy, and sometimes his siblings all worked together in the kitchen for days. Once completed, the family drove all over the region making deliveries and collecting similar gifts of their own. One of the reasons Walter and his family enjoyed this so much was that they were able to do it in spite of their poverty.
In high school, Walter begins to stand up to Gene more and tries to help run the family business. When Gene insists he is going to sell the house on Nameless Lake to pay off some of their mounting business debt, Walter counters that they should renovate the place and rent it out for profit. When no one seems keen on the idea, Walter heads up to the woods himself and begins the work. He secretly hopes his absence will force his aimless brother Mitch step up and help run the day-to-day business of the motel. Before Walter gets too far into the project, his brother shows up and informs him that his parents are going to let Mitch “rent” the cabin on Nameless Lake and do the fixing up so that Walter can go back to the motel. A furious Walter returns home soon after, knowing that his brother will never pay his parents any rent nor will he do any significant work on the house.
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The night in 2004 when Richard leaves the Berglund’s house, he drops the manuscript of Patty’s autobiography in Walter’s home office. Walter discovers it early in the morning and tears through the entire document with increasing outrage. He storms upstairs to Patty’s room and she blanches when she sees the manuscript in his hands. She bursts into tears and tries to explain, but Walter throws phrase after phrase of her less than flattering description of him back at her. She tells him that she wrote the manuscript as part of her therapy, but he is even angrier that she felt it was okay for Richard to read it but not himself. He declares their marriage over and demands she vacate the house. He locks himself away until he hears her leave, and sends Jessica away with little explanation. He finally declares his love to Lalitha.
Over the next few days, he and Lalitha physically consummate their love again and again. Despite their vigor and passion, Walter still feels haunted by Patty when he is intimate with Lalitha. She senses this and worries that Walter is going to go back to his wife. As they continue working on the Free Space music festival, Walter wants to fire Richard because he can’t bear to see him, which working on the festival would make inevitable. Lalitha stands firm and explains that Richard’s celebrity connections are crucial to the concert’s success. She promises to coordinate events in such a way that will prevent Walter and Richard from interacting.
Just as Walter’s marriage blows up, Joey calls him with a moral and financial crisis. Joey explains the situation involving the sale of mediocre parts for military vehicles. Walter does not want Joey to get into trouble or lose Connie’s college savings; however his connection to the problem proves deeper. Walter’s boss, Vin Haven, works closely with LBI, the same company that partnered with Kenny Bartles on the parts scam. Walter knows that encouraging Joey to blow the whistle would most likely cost him his own job as well. Ultimately, Joey decides to keep quiet, repay Connie and the bank, and donate the rest to charity. Walter is proud of his son, and more than a bit ashamed by the weakness of his own character. Keeping Joey’s confidence (he did not want Patty to know), brings Walter and Joey closer, but also comes at the expense of his previously tight relationship with Jessica. In the early days of the separation, his daughter refuses to return his calls.
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Professionally, Walter goes through a difficult patch just as his marriage is ending. He does the press conference as planned as well as a lengthy interview with the Times reporter. In both cases, he sticks to his talking points and hopes to sell the benefits of the project while sidestepping the controversy over MTR. When the article is published, the piece is a scathing criticism of the entire project, replete with quotes from Zorn painting Walter as a megalomaniac. Despite these apparent setbacks, Vin Haven doesn’t seem to be displeased. He believes the bad press will subside and the positive outcomes in the near future will speak for themselves. Vin invites Walter and Lalitha to a press conference celebrating the opening of the body armor factory that convinced Mathis and his neighbors to sell their homes to the Trust; Walter reluctantly accepts.
The night before Lalitha and Walter fly out to West Virginia, they have dinner with Joey and Connie. Both of them are very supportive of Walter and Lalitha’s work, and Connie is grateful that Walter does not share Patty’s disdain for her. During the course of the dinner, Joey reveals that he and Connie visited Patty, who is now living with Richard. This is the first Walter heard of the arrangement and he tries desperately to conceal his complete rage. That night, he smashes all of the pictures of Patty in his bedroom and takes three of her tranquilizers. The next morning, Lalitha tries to rouse the still groggy Walter and get him to the airport. When they finally arrive at the gathering, Walter is more lucid but still feels the effects of the drugs. Vin Haven introduces Walter and asks him to say a few words from the podium to the new employees of the armor factory. Walter sees a scowling Mathis in the front row and cannot conceal his disdain for the hypocrisy of the entire operation. He begins ranting and raving about the stupidity of the West Virginians, who eventually knock him down from the stage and start to kick and punch him. He is only saved by the intervention of Lalitha, who is undaunted by the angry mob. Walter is hospitalized, and though Lalitha tries mightily to convince Vin that he was under the influence of prescription drugs, he and Lalitha are fired from the trust and the assets they were going to use for the concert are no longer at their disposal.
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Remarkably, Walter’s dismissal does not put an end to the Free Space movement. In 2004, viral videos are starting to become popular and Walter’s environmental rant about the hypocrisy of the Trust and the West Virginians who sold out to it spreads quickly. Suddenly, Lalitha is inundated with applications for internships and requests to volunteer for the concert. In addition, Joey gives Free Space $100,000 of his car-parts money (after paying back Connie and the bank, and donating the remainder to veterans). Walter sells his house (in part because Vin Haven evicts him), and he and Lalitha buy a van and go camping across the United States.
During a stop in Florida, Walter shares his passion for birds and bird watching. Although Lalitha is not similarly impassioned, she delights in seeing Walter truly happy for the first time. Finally, they make their way out to Arizona for a summit in preparation for the concert. Walter begins blogging about his beliefs and develops a cult following. The summit (along with the comments on Walter’s blog) reveals that the movement is largely attracting an eccentric fringe population who are more disgruntled with the Bush administration than overpopulation. Unfortunately, Walter needs all the support he can get. He finally convinces Lalitha to release Richard from the concert, and with him go the big names attached to perform. In Arizona, they meet Walter’s younger brother, Brent, who asks Walter if he would consider letting Mitch, their older brother, live at the house on Nameless Lake. Mitch, an ex-con and father to six children by three different wives whom he does not support, has fallen on hard times in part because of the alcoholism he inherited from Gene.
On their way back through Minnesota, they plan to stop and see Mitch before making the final leg of their journey to West Virginia for the concert. Lalitha, concerned about the itinerant nature of the attendees, is anxious to get back early to help mediate between the movement and the local police. She and Walter get into a big fight about his stubbornness and unwillingness to change their plans. They finally agree that she will fly back early the next day and he’ll drive out a day or so later. He goes up to see Mitch, and the two spend an amiable afternoon together; Mitch’s pathetic life seems to have robbed him of the sibling rivalry that characterized him as a young man. Unbeknownst to Walter, the day he visits Mitch, Lalitha is involved in a horrible car accident. Her car goes off the road, down an embankment, and crashes; she does not survive.
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Six years later, in 2010, Patty writes an addendum to her autobiography, acknowledging the intended audience (Walter) and the likely responses (anger, disinterest). In 2004, Patty lives with Richard for a few months after Lalitha’s death. They get a lot of sex out of their systems, and Richard tries to be a one-woman, settled-down man for Patty’s sake; however, she recognizes that his desire to emulate Walter’s decency will not last. She leaves him to his increasingly successful music career, and goes to Wisconsin to live with a college friend named Cathy, Cathy’s partner, and their two children. While nannying for the two kids, Patty finds her career calling (teaching and working with young children), but this career isn’t fulfilled in Wisconsin. Her father Ray becomes gravely ill, and she heads back to New York to be with her family for the first time since she married Walter.
Patty is surprised by her father’s poor health, but finds him and Joyce (her mother) very much the same. Patty suddenly regrets all of the years she spent separating herself from her parents and seeing her dad dying makes her realize the missed opportunity. Against her better judgment and despite all of the grudges against Ray she has nursed, Patty reconnects with her father during his last days. He admits to his shortcoming as a father, including his inability to show affection; he finally tells Patty that he loves her. Patty makes similar reconnections with her mother, but not at the same depth. She tries to question her mother about her indifference to Patty as a young woman. The closest Joyce comes to an apology is to generalize about making mistakes as a parent. Patty tries to reassure her that she doesn’t judge Joyce, especially in light of the many mistakes she made with Joey and Jessica.
When Ray dies, his funeral is a large-scale event with massive attendance. Many of his fellow lawyers eulogize him for his decency and hard work, and Patty feels like she gets a glimpse of a side of her father she didn’t know. At the end of the funeral, she notices the back rows populated largely by people of color. She soon realizes they are families he helped through his law practice and many of them come to Patty and her family to pay their respects. With Ray gone and Joyce overwhelmed, Patty must now take on the cumbersome responsibility of managing her three younger siblings, all of whom have their eyes on their inheritance from Ray.
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After the funeral, Joyce confides in Patty that she is having difficulty figuring out what to do with a highly valuable upstate manse that Ray has been managing. Ray’s living siblings feel that they are entitled to it, while Patty’s sisters, Veronica and Abigail want their mother to sell it and give them a portion of the profits. Complicating matters is Patty’s brother, Edgar, who lives on the property with his Russian wife, Galina, and their growing brood of children. Patty proposes selling the estate and dividing up the proceeds, but Joyce does not want to get involved.
Patty first visits her older sister, Abigail, who is obviously spearheading the campaign to sell the house for money. She does not want to share the proceeds with Ray’s siblings so that there will be more for herself. Patty listens to Abigail ramble on about her esoteric artistic pursuits, and realizes that she will never be close with her sister. Patty next visits her brother and his wife up on the estate. The family has been experimenting with farming, but not very successfully, and Patty wonders how the estate will fare if Edgar, Galina and the kids continue to live there. The three children are adorable, and Patty (whose ease with young kids led her to be a teacher’s aide and coach) takes to them right away. Edgar is pleasant, but obviously defers to Galina in all things. The very pregnant Galina resents Abigail’s desire to sell the house her family occupies. In their own way, Edgar and Galina are as difficult to convince as Abigail. Patty finally visits her sister Veronica (who goes by Ronnie). Ronnie is a very different kind of eccentric than her sister, Abigail. Once a dancer, Ronnie now prefers to live in solitude. She is obviously not as invested as Abigail in selling the house and cutting the uncles out of the profits, but she recognizes the opportunity to live independently without having to work (despite her having an incredibly high IQ, her current occupation is that of a secretary).
Ultimately, Patty realizes she will never get her siblings to agree on a solution, so she proceeds with her plan: selling the estate and dividing it among the uncles and siblings. Patty’s share helps her continue to live independently from Walter as she continues her career. Working with middle-school-aged kids and younger, Patty realizes that the mistakes she made with Joey and Jessica happened largely during their teenage years; she was far better equipped to handle them as young children. One day in 2010, Patty runs into Richard and the two go for coffee. She admits to Richard that she hasn’t spoken to Walter in six years; he tells her she should try to put her thoughts into writing because of her ability to tell a story.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492
Walter now lives in the house on Nameless Lake full-time. A new development has cropped up on the opposite side of the lake called Canterbridge Estates. Walter largely keeps to himself and spends hours in the woods looking at birds and taking in nature. He soon begins to show up at Canterbridge Estates out of environmental concern. He goes door to door asking each homeowner not to let his/her cat outside because they kill birds, possibly endangering certain types. One resident, Linda Hoffbauer, takes particular offense to Walter’s request and insists that her cat, Bobby, has the right to go outdoors and bird. When Walter later papers the neighborhood with flyers, he becomes even less popular. When Bobby suddenly goes missing, Linda spreads a rumor that Walter killed the animal. In reality, Walter trapped the cat, drove it to an urban shelter several hours away, and donated it. In retaliation, Linda’s husband deliberately blocks off Walter’s driveway with snow when he plows.
The kids come to visit periodically, and Walter is pleased that Joey has found success in environmentally friendly coffee. Jessica has warmed some to Walter, but still holds the separation against him. When she visits, she tries to tell him that she believes Patty is still in love with him, but Walter avoids the subject even when Jessica points out that he still hasn’t divorced Patty. One evening in October, Walter finds Patty waiting on his front porch. He refuses to speak to her, instead waiting for her to state whatever is on her mind. When she doesn’t, he goes into his house and begins searching through his mail. In the weeks before, both Richard and Patty had mailed Walter something. Richard sent a CD of music inspired by Walter, while Patty sent him a new autobiographical writings. He sifts through the writing before becoming enraged and chastising Patty for disrupting his solitude. When she doesn’t respond, he decides to similarly wait out in the cold behind the house. When it starts to become extremely cold, he carries Patty into the house. Inside, he bundles her in front of the fire and uses his body heat to warm her. Finally, Patty starts to come around from her hypothermic daze and the two share meaningful moments; it seems they have both finally forgiven each other.
Patty stays, and ingratiates herself in a way that Walter never could. It makes it all the more surprising to the neighbors when they decided to move away. At a goodbye party, the couple looks ahead to their future together and explains their departure as motivated by a desire to be closer to their family. When they move away, the house is hollowed out and turned into a bird preserve. A fence is built around the house to keep cats out, and the sign for the preserve shows a picture of Lalitha—the preserve has been named after her.