Jonathan Franzen's gift for wedding depth and vividness of character with breadth of social vision has never been more dazzlingly evident than in Crossroads.
It's December 23, 1971, and heavy weather is forecast for Chicago. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, is on the brink of breaking free of a marriage he finds joyless--unless his wife, Marion, who has her own secret life, beats him to it. Their eldest child, Clem, is coming home from college on fire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem's sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, has sharply veered into the counterculture, while their brilliant younger brother Perry, who's been selling drugs to seventh graders, has resolved to be a better person. Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate.
Jonathan Franzen's novels are celebrated for their unforgettably vivid characters and for their keen-eyed take on contemporary America. Now, in Crossroads, Franzen ventures back into the past and explores the history of two generations. With characteristic humor and complexity, and with even greater warmth, he conjures a world that resonates powerfully with our own.
A tour de force of interwoven perspectives and sustained suspense, its action largely unfolding on a single winter day, Crossroads is the story of a Midwestern family at a pivotal moment of moral crisis. Jonathan Franzen's gift for melding the small picture and the big picture has never been more dazzlingly evident.
Jonathan Franzen is the author of The Corrections, winner of the 2001 National Book Award for fiction; the novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion; and two works of nonfiction, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, all published by FSG. His fourth novel, Freedom, was published in the fall of 2010.
Franzen's other honors include a 1988 Whiting Writers' Award, Granta's Best Of Young American Novelists (1996), the Salon Book Award (2001), the New York Times Best Books of the Year (2001), and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (2002).
Franzen is still aiming to craft the perfect Great American Novel, and he is just the guy for it: His new trilogy (of which "Crossroads" is only the first part) should probably be read with his infamous essay "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels" in mind. While dissecting the roots of the crisis of the novel (an argument that had several connections to DFW's Infinite Jest and his essay "E Unibus Pluram", and we'll come back to that later), Franzen stated that he wanted to write the book to overcome it, a compelling, socially relevant, realist text that underlines what a novel can and other media can't do, a book that offers strong characters with lots of psychological depth. The essay was first published in 1996, so before Franzen headed for literary world domination with bangers like The Corrections and Freedom. While I felt slightly let down by his last effort, Purity, I feel like this new trilogy, ladies and gentlemen, is the work he announced in 1996: The key to all mythologies (modestly named after a tract in Middlemarch).
As can be expected from Franzen, "Crossroads" is an American family epic that gathers its strength from all-too-plausible psychological writing, and the psychogram of the characters hints at the mind and state of the country as a whole. Our protagonists are the members of the Hildebrandt family, patriarch Russ is a second pastor at First Reform church in (fictional) New Prospect, Illinois. It's right before Christmas 1971, the Vietnam war is raging, the hippie movement is flourishing. While Russ is having a feud with the more popular youth pastor, his marriage to Marion (who harbors a dark secret) is falling apart. Clem, the eldest son, wants to drop out of college and fight in Vietnam, his popular sister Becky is falling in love and trying to find her own identity, brother Perry is having a drug problem, and the enigmatic younger Judson will probably become the star of a later installment. "Crossroads" (while also an obvious metaphor) is the name of the church's youth group, that becomes an ego battleground while also (seriously and/or outwardly) tackling questions of how to craft a better society.
So much for the larger plot lines, but what makes the text is how the aformentioned psychological writing ponders larger themes without spelling them out: This is essentially a book about morality, about the discrepancy between outward appearances and inward urges, about - wait for it - virtue signaling, deplatforming, old white men, cultural appropriation (Robert Johson's "Cross Road Blues" is covered by Cream, as mentioned in the text), and social movements (here especially the anti-war movement, the hippie movement, and charity initiatives for Black and Native American communities) as reputation-enhancing lifestyle choices. My guess: This line will, in later parts of the trilogy, lead straight to discussions about identiy politics (and, in the backgrund, its impact on literature).
That does not mean that Franzen condemns these characters; he just shows them as deeply flawed, ambiguous people who grapple with their frail humanity, who aim for status in the world, who want to be someone, but (mostly) also want be good, which isn't always easy to balance out, because, suprise, the world is unfair, and society's standards are often crap, even if the declared ideals aren't.
Franzen himself hails from Illinois, and his late friend David Foster Wallace, who grew up in Illinois (close to Urbana, which features in "Crossroads"; he studied in Arizona, which also plays an important part in the book), comes to mind when pondering the themes of the novel. What would DFW have said to these issues? It's like the spirit of his writing is lurking between the lines of "Crossroads".
Lastly, one important thing needs to be mentioned: This novel is tremendous fun to read, it's utterly absorbing, driven by fascinating, complex characters. The focus shifts from one member of the Hildebrandt family to the other, and all of them are equally interesting. I can't wait to read part II and III.
Terrific first book of a trilogy- a series in the making…
Loved the characterization, the social and psychological aspects of humanity and history … A BIG FAMILY STORY… looking at goodness, morality, faith, God, religion, covering intimate themes galore… Marriage, parenthood, sibling individuality, sibling relationships, love sex, boyfriends, girlfriends, infatuations, adultery, humiliation, coming-of-age, drugs, music, Church, a religious youth group, …. and as Bob Dylan might have said…. Times, they were a change-in. The writing is stellar…. Say whatever you want about your thoughts about Franzen … his writing is exceptional…. As Philip Roth, John Updike, were, Jonathan Franzen … is a powerful - contemporary American great novelist. I have pages of notes but honestly what I really want to say is how much I enjoyed it— A buddy read with Violet Wells.
I’ll leave one small excerpt now before my morning walk.
“Almost everything in life was vanity—success a vanity, privilege a vanity, Europe a vanity, beauty a vanity. When you stripped away the vanity and stood alone before God, what was left? Only loving your neighbor as yourself. Only worshiping the Lord, Sunday after Sunday. Even if you lived for eighty years, the duration of a life was infinitesimal, your eighty years of Sunday’s were over in a blink. Life had no length; only in depth was there salvation”.
This novel might easily be titled The Lying life of Adults. Like Ferrante's novel it's about a dysfunctional family. For me Ferrante's novel was better, more pressing and incisive, closer to the heart and I began to ask myself if I found it a better novel simply because I'm European and not American and so could relate more intimately with Ferrante's world. There are moments on the news here when you realise how out of kilter America and Europe have become. Mostly this has to do with how politicised Christianity has become in America. I could understand an American author tackling this topical subject. However, the Christianity in Crossroads is more innocently old school which makes it feel like a very old fashioned environment and novel, the 1970s often seeming more remote in time than the world of The Great Gatsby. Meaning for the characters is sought almost exclusively in sex or Jesus and often the two are confused with each other. Mostly the Christian construction characters put on experience is self-serving. The most mature character in Crossroads often seems the youngest son who is six. The characters are all at times deeply unlikeable in their delusions and vanities and resentments. Not that this doesn't make them engaging. Both parents are posturing as adults; in reality they are both closer to adolescence emotionally. The two elder children didn't hold enough interest for me. Both are stuffy and self-righteous and unable to enjoy their youth as if they can't wait to become immature adults. The adolescent Perry, more interesting and inspiring some of Franzen's best writing, turns to drugs rather than Jesus for meaning and brought the novel more up to date. I can't say Crossroads ever wowed me but I did look forward to reading it every day, more because of the energy and intelligence and insight with which it's written than the subject and environment. A buddy read with lovely Elyse.
(I'm still mostly locked out of my account here and apologise that I can't respond to comments. It's super annoying.)
Really loved it, and was surprised by it, and am excited to hear what people think of it. It has its strange moments, and some regressive ones, but also incredible sequences, and the Marion character, specifically, fascinated me. Franzen has a knack for intertwined family novels, and this one, while not up to the level of THE CORRECTIONS, is great. Excited for part 2!
DNF. I want you to know it's okay to not finish a book. Even if you're 22 hours in to a 28 hour book. Even if the book has over 4 stars on Goodreads. Even if this is the Great American Novel. Not every book is for you. And those six hours I saved allowed me to read something good instead. I already wasted enough time.
Jonathan Franzen is in peak form, and also back in familiar territory, with this mid-Western family drama set in the early 1970s. This is apparently the first installment in a planned trilogy, and I am certainly eager to continue the story in Franzen's future volumes.
The family in question is the Hildebrandt family, consisting of parents (Russ and Marion) and four children (Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson). The story is told from five points of view, i.e., from the perspectives of each of the Hildebrandt family members except for the youngest son, Judson.
Russ is the associate pastor at a liberal protestant church who has fallen out of love with his wife and in love with a parishioner. He is also in competition with a younger, more dynamic pastor, Rick Ambrose, who leads the church's youth group, named "Crossroads." The youth group is popular with the local high school kids and is a bit of a personality cult for Rick Ambrose, who focuses more on New Age-y psychobabble than on religion.
Marion has a tragic past that she keeps hidden from Russ and the kids, and she is still haunted by it to this day. In particular, she makes an agreement with an unscrupulous character, which she believes is responsible for all the trouble with her middle son, Perry.
Clem is the oldest of the Hildebrandt children and is a freshman at the University of Illinois. He is reckless with the feelings of his girlfriend and decides to drop out of school to be drafted into the Vietnam War, much to the chagrin of his pacifist father.
Becky is beautiful, popular, and a good girl, that is, until she falls in love with a musician, Tanner, who already has a girlfriend. Becky struggles between doing what she knows is the right thing vs. doing what everyone else expects her to do.
Perry is a drug addict and a dealer. His descent into harder and harder drug addiction is accompanied by the onset of severe mental illness. He also risks essentially bankrupting his family.
Franzen's prose is perfect, as usual. He does an excellent job analyzing the psychology of all the characters and paints a realistic picture of family that is falling apart. I am also intrigued by this portrait of mid-Western protestant culture, which is very different from my own upbringing.
Five stars for each of these five compelling and well-developed characters. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Two things Jonathan Franzen can’t be accused of: lack of humor and lack of words. This book is teeming with both. His humor is subdued where his loquaciousness is glaring but Franzen is an author who knows where he’s going with both of them. If you trust him enough to go along for the ride the essence of the book will stay with you long after the particulars of the narrative have vanished from memory.
I finished this a couple of days ago and already the plot, which comes dangerously close to that of a soap opera, recedes and the question at the core of the book takes center stage: HOW TO BE GOOD. Halfway into the novel, the middle son of the Hildebrandt family, whose lives and times in the American Midwest of the 1970s Franzen recounts, dares to pose it to both a rabbi and a Lutheran priest: “I suppose what I’m asking,” he said, “is whether goodness can ever truly be its own reward, or whether, consciously or not, it always serves some personal instrumentality.”
The Hildebrandt clan consists of a pair of middle-aged parents, three teenagers and a nine year old son. Russ, the paterfamilias, is the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church in fictional New Prospect, Illinois. Their quest for goodness is not only a personal stance, it is preordained by their ties to church and religion. They all strive to open the door to their better selves but the results of their efforts don’t often match their good intentions. They strive to connect and sometimes they do, but more often they don’t, and the bitterness that ensues further entrenches their selfishness. Franzen goes to great pains at describing each member’s said ‘instrumentality’ that, surprise, isn’t very far from that of every other halfway decent human being’s out there.
Crossroads is not only the name of the Christian youth group that provides much of the drama in the story, it's also the pivotal point in the Hildebrandts' common history where each one makes life-altering decisions that, whether they like it or not, are informed by those of the others. The inexhaustible drama of being part of a family is Franzen territory and once more he revels in its exploration. I can’t say that the parts of the kids resonated with me as much as those of the parents but I admired the precision with which he dissects his characters.
God and sex are all over this book. They serve as these characters’ primary means of finding harmony and making peace with themselves. God is synonymous to peace here and each member has their place where they go looking for Him. In food or drugs, solitary travel or social climbing, a tour of Europe or farming in Peru, in the safety of a green-leafed Midwestern suburb or in the unpredictability of an Indian reservation in the Arizona desert.
Religion, morality and -again- sex, are the things these people (save for the nine year old, who is probably due for the royal treatment in a future book) are constantly preoccupied with. They’re trying to reconcile their carnal and spiritual longings, more often than not failing to do so, ending up tormenting themselves, those around them and the occasional reader, with Reverend Russ by far winning the title of Master Torturer. Franzen observes them with a highbrow detachment that I sometimes found hard to digest. The best moments of the book come when he decides to take the plunge into empathy. In between he gets carried away by his excessive attention to trivial details.
I’m thinking now, isn’t life just the same? A seemingly endless succession of trivialities interrupted at times, for better or worse, from brief heightened states of consciousness? He’s a writer who aspires to convey the realities of everyday lives; why shouldn’t the pace of his books be the same as that of life? I understand the analogy, I really do. But let me share this: to this day I remember the sensation the last pages of Freedom left me with. I finished that one on a similar November morning in 2010, and the endangered species of the bird that kept popping into that story had also tried my patience. I was sitting at the same table I’m sitting now, in my kitchen, a day filled with the usual chores of a life as ordinary as the lives of Franzen’s heroes. But everything had come to a standstill then, until the last word had been read, and when that was done I found myself sobbing, yes sobbing, and could think of nothing else but the power of those words. Franzen had offered me a few moments of ‘heightened existence’ and a writer that is capable of offering such a cathartic experience will always have my respect.
He had done it again, to an extent, in The Corrections but he didn’t do it now. Maybe because the ending wasn’t really an end but a bridge to the next book of the trilogy he (self-mockingly or over-ambitiously) decided to name ‘A Key to All Mythologies.’ Despite my grumbling I look forward to finding out if he manages to get hold of such a key, or if his endeavors will be as self delusional as Rev. Casaubon’s in Middlemarch – or, indeed, as those of his fictional heroes.
Very impressive in description of scenes, confrontations and interiority of characters. But also very long and with almost oppressive amounts of guilt, morality, Christianity and shame I don't even know you well enough to have a feeling about you. I don't think anybody really knows you. I think the people who think they do are wrong
Shame and guilt is a clear theme in Crossroads, where we follow the Hildebrandt family and their struggles in the early 1970's. What is the right thing? What is ones true self? Everyone in the book, including side characters, seem to be wrestling with these questions. Racial tension is also a clear theme, already at the start the foxy one-on-one of assistent minister Russ and a recent widow is marred by the harsh reality of the south side of Chicago (When you are poor everything just happens to you). Russ in his sexuality seems to be constantly on in respect to the women around him, just excluding his wife Marion.
Crossroads is the program of community outreach in the Southside of Chicago that Russ used to participate in, but metaphysically the whole family is on all kinds of crossroads. Perry, their IQ of 160 genius son, is doing drugs to dim the too acute awareness of the world his intelligence provides him. Clem the oldest son goes through first love and feels the injustice of him being in college while people are still fight in Vietnam. Becky is an all popular daughter who effortlessly expanded her influence to Crossroads, but now has her heart to deal with and whose relationship with Clem is under severe strain. Only Judson, the youngest son and closest confidant to Perry, seems reasonably unencumbered.
In the few days before Christmas a lot of family dynamics come to boil, with dramatic confrontations and full on epiphanies that can easily be compared to any Greek mythology (in that sense this being the first of a trilogy of Jonathan Franzen call the "The Key to All Mythologies" seems apt).
Rick Ambrose the upstart currently leading Crossroads and reaching 120 youths, including Russ his children Becky and Perry, is an important point of tension. He uses sect like methods to foster honest exchanges between the youths, which in one of the first chapters of the book lead to a confrontation between Becky and Perry. Crossroads as a group has awkward public displays of emotion and fondling among teenagers to break walls between social classes. There are inner circles and in general Stalinist social dynamics with sharing of bad thoughts to the group; it gives a claustrophobic feel to much of the youth group set scenes of the book. The Becky and Perry confrontation is incredibly well done, and a real explanation on why someone would want to change his or her moral life (Did his soul change every time he got a new insight?). The verbosity of the characters, which they use to cut to the core of their grievances with each other, is impressive: An absence of negatives wasn’t necessarily a positive. Perry about the beauty of his sister Becky And: I don’t even know you well enough to have a feeling about you. I don’t think anybody really knows you. I think the people who think they do are wrong. - Becky's takedown of Perry is just wow.
The looking down of Perry on others is rather tiring, but a sign of the very well executed, beautifully done characterization of Franzen.
The way how Becky neatly introduces Clem, her college student brother, and his character in how he stands up for her against a dog, for instance is also chefs kiss. Things that were forbidden were often precisely what the heart most wanted. The college application essays are a fascinating method to give more insight into Becky and her family relations, as a metronome between altruistic brother Clem and glamorous aunt Shirley of Marion (mother to the Hildebrandt children) who has the following slogan: Better of rich than talented.
Becky her struggle is between not carrying about status or popularity or being a good person, even made more acutely by an inheritance. To be both feared and liked was its own kind of feat, and it struck in her mind a happy balance between the very different people whose example mattered to her. And then she has to content with a potential boyfriend Tanner, who initially sounds like a jerk first class when speaking to Becky, undercutting her use of disdain as a defensive mechanism. Again we gain (at the same moment as the character) very profound insights in the core of a person: I want to be liked might have been the most honest words she ever uttered. Or observations like: It’s easier to pray when you feel weak. Easier to pray for strength than for humility.
Clem(ent) his choice to drop out given the Vietnam war feels callous, especially to essentially just escape from an overbearing girlfriend and some classwork. His feverish relationship with sex seems to be similar in a way to the struggle his father has with the subject. He comes across very self-righteousness (and in that way a very well depicted adolescent); if I had a breakdown every time I was procrastinating I’d be dead by now, was a thought that often struck me in his segments. He is also very much too brutally honest, saying things like: I love who you are, but I am not in love with you.
Only after a few of these deep dives in characters we get to why Russ left Crossroads and how he could have lost control of a group of teenagers. Along the way we subtly learn how everyone in the family thinks of another child as favourite of one of the parents.
Marion, the mother who struggles with her weight and visits a psychiatrist comes into focus next. A modern kind of confessional these visits, a paid friend to a mother who is clearly struggling. Body dysmorphia seems only one of the smaller of her psychological issues to contend with: Its not just me by the way, Marion said. I think everyone is bad, I think badness is the fundamental condition of humanity. Or: There is no escaping the consequences of the life I’ve made. That the therapist says the below seems the only sensible question: Why is is every time a man injures you respond by feeling guilty?
Taboos on mental health and earlier sexual relationships come back. A lot of drama in Marion her childhood, through the Great Depression and the suicide of her father, leading to a breakup of her family. And again family, here a sister who is more perceived as more talented and favourited, leads to tragedy. That people were cruel to what they were afraid of loving. It makes you wonder how much you know of your parents life before they became your parents. There is passion verging on (and exceeding) crazy, which seems supposed to be a family trait?
It's no wonder that when we turn to Perry there is not much sunshine to be found there. He uses people (after a brief intermezzo of reform) with a targeted instrumentality. Sometimes he calls friends: of scant utility, making sympathising with him quite hard. The discussion that Perry has with the Rabbi and reverend at almost the halfway point of the book, on the question if true, selfless goodness is possible, seems to be the heart of the book. Not much later Becky realises something similar: Maybe everyone does that, find ways to feel good about their fundamental sinfulness.
It’s a very zoomed in book, with very big personal events in a very small timeframe, making the switch around 65% of the book to Easter and some of the fallout of Christmas, strange. Also it makes the technique of characters constantly seeing one’s own actions in the light of other’s judgement or based on own impure intentions, where they then act only moderately to appallingly ineffectively upon, more clear and less new. Repetitions of the complaint Marion makes: I’m just not a good enough person keep being abundant, while most of the characters seem to continue on their live in broadly the same manner as just before Christmas and all their big life changing events. That in a sense is probably deeply human, but also made me as a reader a bit tired to read anew about mistakes people make, then beat themselves up about, and then continue further upon with in the same vein. Someone even comments on this: The idea I could be a different kind of person is just a fantasy.
There is a deep dive into the Navajo’s and Russ his youth that I feel would have more naturally fit in the Christmas segments, maybe as a juxtaposition to all we learned about the background of Marion. In the end no one gets what they want (or more precisely, they do get what they want but it sure as hell turns out not to be in all instances to be what they need).
With a bit more focus and compression I feel this would have been a 5 star book for me, now I was wowed by the writerly prowess of Franzen but do feel the pacing is off, and the book is a bit long. Still a very well executed novel and I am definitely curious to see how the Hildebrandts will progress further through American history.
Quotes: There is eternity in every second we are alive.
His stringency a compensation for some underlying weakness
It was strange self pity wasn’t on the list of deathly sins
As if feeling his penis made her sleepy 😂
I love you I appreciate that
Hope was the refuse of the stupid
I don’t deserve joy. No one does, it’s a gift from god
Un pastore e un seminarista, mennoniti, gruppi di attività cristiana, dio e gesù e spirito santo, colpa peccato penitenza punizione pentimento, resistere alle tentazioni della carne, preghiera raccoglimento chiesa messa sermone… E chi più ne ha, più ne metta. Non c’è nulla in queste premesse, in questi elementi che possa attirarmi. Anzi, tutt’altro, è molto, molto probabile che sarò respinto, perché odio chiese e religioni e sono un mangiapreti (cominciando dalle suore). Qui c’è un concentrato di quello che al mondo meno mi interessa e anzi proprio mi infastidisce. E invece… A peggiorare ulteriormente, se possibile, c’è che Franzen – e questo è il nostro primo incontro – dimostra una perversa attrazione per gli alberi genealogici e il racconto di ogni personaggio più o meno dall’epoca delle fasce. Io no invece, tutt’altro, gradisco molto poco: ho conosciuto due nonni su quattro e non sono mai stato curioso di risalire oltre. E invece… Catturato. Inchiodato. Forse dall’immediata sensazione di avere per le mani un romanzo contemporaneo con scrittura e struttura di un classico. Forse per il rigoglio di lieve ironia, che si tiene lontana dalle note umoristiche, ancor più da quelle comiche. Forse appunto per quel sapore e profumo e consistenza di romanzo ottocentesco che però sa farsi sommamente contemporaneo, con impennate a tratti quasi allucinate.
Qual è la “nuova prospettiva” che parrebbe indicare il luogo dove avvengono la maggior parte degli eventi (New Prospect in Illinois)? Quella che anche le vite qualunque – per di più quelle di una famiglia del Midwest, il prototipo del luogo “qualunque” – nascondono un’infinita complessità? Forse, chissà. Anche se a me questa famiglia non sembra così decisamente “qualunque” avendo un capofamiglia che si guadagna da vivere facendo il pastore e passando la maggior parte del tempo a ragionare di e con dio. Epperò, sì, sembra alquanto comune questo pastore padre e marito con forti tentazioni carnali quasi mai dirette alla sua legittima sposa; la di lui moglie, Marion (il mio personaggio preferito), che nasconde un passato che ritiene vada nascosto, ed è capace d’impennate inaspettate; i quattro figli, tre maschi e un’unica femmina, divisi tra scuola primaria liceo e college, per la maggior parte ancora preda delle forti pulsioni assolutistiche, ma mai assolutorie, legate all’adolescenza. Ma anche no, sono sei individui alquanto inusuali, ai quali Franzen fa compiere un percorso che per lungo tempo (il romanzo ha seicento trenta pagine) ha il tono di una classica “tragedia americana”. Evitata per il rotto della cuffia con un riequilibrio che sfocia in un magistrale finale, momento che ho trovato il più alto di tutto il romanzo.
Siamo a natale del 1971, all’inizio di quel magico fondamentale decennio, e, ce lo ricorda anche il narratore in terza persona, la guerra in Vietnam è in pieno corso. Crossroads, titolo di un brano blues del mitico Robert Johnson, è il nome di un’organizzazione giovanile di ispirazione cristiana (variante mennonita), un folto gruppo-comunità che come il nome della cittadina suggerisce un’altra importante metafora del romanzo: i crocevia, gli incroci che la vita propone. E attenzione, il brano di Johnson dice esplicitamente che all’incrocio si presenta il diavolo in persona: il diavolo è un personaggio che si presenta nel satana, che va a braccetto con babbo natale, in inglese affettuosamente chiamato l'uno Santa e l'altro, il diavolo, appunto Satan: Satan è il soprannome appiccicato a un uomo che rende la vita della ventenne Marion letteralmente un inferno. La vita si presenta spesso sotto forma di scelta – l’incrocio, il crocevia – e alcune strade sono governate dal Male. Ho trovato molto belle e calzante il collegamento tra Norman Rockwell – nominato da Franzen a pagina 305 – la sua America tradizionale, rassicurante, conformista ritratta nelle immagini che Franzen sembra ‘ritoccare’ con un metodo alla Francis Bacon, come se le prime avessero subito lo sfregio di un Francis Bacon, che decomponeva i volti, faceva urlare un papa, isolava gli animali e gli uomini, desacralizzava le crocifissioni immergendoli nella desolazione tragica della condizione umana.
Franzen sembra aver coniato un nuovo termine – o meglio aver trovato un nuovo senso per un termine già noto: in queste pagine si parla molto di deragliamento, di slittamento, e Franzen ha in mente la catena di una bicicletta uscita dalla sua guida. E io non posso non pensare alla smarginatura di Elena Ferrante, autrice che è nell’olimpo di Jonathan Franzen.
Piccola notazione marginale probabilmente dettata dal fatto che ho un culto per la sintesi, una virtù troppo poco praticata: m’è parso però uno strano (grosso) neo quella cinquantina di pagine dedicate alla storia personale e alla formazione di Russ collocate in posizione così avanzata: sia perché non aggiungono nulla al racconto, ripetono elementi già noti – certo fin lì mai espressi con tale abbondanza e cura – sia perché interrompono per troppo tempo il flusso, che a quel punto ha preso un corso che non si vuole abbandonare, e sia perché, come già detto, arrivano decisamente tardi nel libro.
I’ve always loved Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, but Crossroads is on a whole other level, even from contemporary classics like The Corrections and Freedom.
It’s one of the most absorbing and probing analyses of the American family that I’ve ever read. And while it’s the first part of a projected trilogy – called, perhaps tongue in cheek, A Key To All Mythologies (a reference to Casaubon’s incomplete opus in Middlemarch) – this novel stands on its own as an intriguing and penetrating look into some themes and obsessions that have helped shape America in the last half a century.
Franzen eschews plot for a deep dive into one family in the early 70s. It’s two days before Christmas in 1971, and each member of the Hildebrandt family is at a crossroads in his or her life.
• Family head Russ is an associate pastor at a church outside Chicago. Still smarting from a situation with a junior colleague that crushed his ego a few years earlier, he’s lusting after a parishioner, a recent widow, who’s joined the church.
• Russ’s wife, Marion, knows or suspects what he’s doing. But she’s got her own secrets, which go back decades, some of which she’s told to her psychiatrist, whom nobody knows about.
• Oldest son Clem is away at university, and has a girlfriend, but he’s just made a rash decision that will affect his life – and probably devastate his parents – forever.
• Clem’s favourite family member, Becky, is one of the most popular girls at high school, and she’s looking forward to university and perhaps a trip to Europe in the summer before college begins. But she’s also caught the eye of a handsome folk singer who plays at the club where she works part-time.
• Second-oldest son Perry is a genius but something of a social outsider – until, that is, he joins a youth group at his father’s church. But he’s also a low-level drug dealer, and his experimentation with other substances will either bring him to another level of consciousness or help fuck up his mind.
• The youngest, Judson, is a bright, handsome nine-year-old kid. But he’s the only Hildebrandt family member whose POV we don’t have access to.
Franzen gets incredibly deep into these people’s lives and minds, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the emergence of the counterculture. They’re all dealing in some way with how to live a good and honourable life. But they’re flawed, blinded by pride, lust, anger, guilt and vanity. Even their acts of charity – be it donating things to inner city churches, building schools for Navajos in the 1940s or simply talking to less popular kids in high school – are complicated by ulterior motives.
Despite the line-by-line, page-by-page brilliance of the book, at times I found myself overwhelmed by the intensity of the writing and the unsparing observations. If I have one issue with the book, it’s that it needs some occasional comic relief. There are funny lines – often from Perry’s skewed perspective – but they come in the second half of a very long novel.
I love how Franzen tells the story. If there are gaps in someone’s narrative, you may have to wait until another character’s chapter to fill them in. In the first half, Marion has an extremely long chapter in which we dig far, far back into her history. I wondered why Russ didn’t receive similar treatment, but Franzen makes you wait. When his hefty backstory comes, it will change how you feel about him and perhaps make you think differently about how he behaves at the beginning of the book.
Will we follow these characters into the next two books? Or will there be others? The idea of ecological destruction crops up subtly, and that is a theme Franzen has dealt with in some of his fiction and a lot of his non-fiction. And I imagine Franzen will look at the rise of the religious right in the 80s and 90s, as well as the current persistent division between red and blue states.
One thing is clear, however. I was hoping that Franzen would stick his landing. After so much delving into misery and pain, so much striving after things for morally questionable reasons, I was hoping that he would offer up something transcendent, a moment or two of grace and redemption.
Thank God for Jonathan Franzen. His new novel, “Crossroads,” is the first of a planned trilogy modestly called “A Key to All Mythologies.” With its dazzling style and tireless attention to the machinations of a single family, “Crossroads” is distinctly Franzenesque, but it represents a marked evolution, a new level of discipline and even a deeper sense of mercy.
This time around, the celebrated chronicler of the Way We Live Now is exploring the Way We Lived Then — notably the early 1970s. And the gaping jaw of his earlier novels, capable of swallowing a vast body of cultural trends and commercial ills, has been replaced by a laser-eyed focus on the flutterings of the soul.
Before now, “soul” is not a term I would have associated with Franzen, whose brilliant, acerbic work has seemed committed to a purely material concept of human identity. But “Crossroads” feels consumed with the Psalmist’s question, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?”
The story revolves around Rev. Russ Hildebrandt, an associate pastor at an active Protestant church in suburban Chicago. When the novel opens, 47-year-old Russ is still smarting from the brutal cancelation of. . . .
Loved the book. I listened to the audio from the library! I’m hoping to buy this off my Amazon wishlist as my April bday present!! I’m trying to con friends and family to fork out the $50 gift cards since I’ll be 50 😳 (I might use my points to go ahead and get it and put it right on my bookshelf)!!
I loved these characters even with all of their flaws!!! This story covers so many things and that’s why I love it. Different people have flaws as I’ve said, do horrible things, different race issues, adultery, religion, coming of age …. pretty much everything. And this is going to be a trilogy of this family! Yay!?
Franzen is a master of intricate novels about messed-up families. Crossroads is both eloquent and frustrating. As a reader, my relationship to each character vacillated and deepened as I learned more about their flaws, motivations - and faith. I was most drawn to Marion, and will read the next book in the planned trilogy for her. Franzen writes beautifully and generously but often uses two sentences when one would do. I was more aware of the page count than I like to be in a 500+ page book.
4.5. This is Franzen's new novel, which will be published 5th October '21. I'll write a short review for this soon but as I read a proof copy, I am not allowed to quote from it yet. Maybe when October rolls around I will return and write a full review as I want to. But for now: Franzen has somehow managed to write a family saga filled with the same old problems but nail it. This was a pleasure to read, a 600-pager that barely falters. Wonderful characters, wonderful dialogue, wonderful ideas: drugs and God and identity and most of all, family.
Post-publication review, 12/10/21.
I've now read 105 books so far this year including some pretty famously (infamously) brilliant ones, Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, War and Peace, Les Misérables, Middlemarch, etc., but (and it astounds me to say), Jonathan Franzen's Crossroads may still sit in the top 5 books I've read this year so far. As I said above in my pre-publication review, he writes all the things we've seen a thousand times. There's the father who wants to shake up his life a little by having an affair and questions God; there's the probably-brilliant son who gets caught up with drugs; there's the struggling wife; the whole thing is a fairly predictable family saga. What's new? I'm not entirely sure. Crossroads is written with such clarity and warmth that I couldn't resist loving it. Franzen's writing is brilliant but not bowl-you-over literary brilliant, no lines, that I can remember, straight from someone like Joyce or Nabokov, but brilliant all the same. The heart of this book is the characterisation, how every character blooms with every page turned and how utterly real the whole thing is, completely believable. I've been telling everyone I know to read it. I'm flicking through the pages now looking for some underlined quotes to include but there are hardly any, which is rare in a book I claim to love, but I think it proves something about how understated the whole thing is, how subtle, and how it's the closest thing to a literary-page-turner I've read in years. I have no idea where Franzen is going to go with the next two books but I cannot wait and can already see myself re-reading this before the second comes, and maybe at that point I can write a better review. Frankly, it's hard to say why this book is so good and why it works so well. All I can say is read it: it has some of the best characters, most realistic dialogue/arguments I've read for some time (a bit Revolutionary Road on that front) and Franzen could well be claiming the Great American Novel of this century so far already. Or another way of putting it, read it for its humanity.
I tried, and I got pretty far, and eventually I came to understand that Franzen's great strength is in the way he forces his characters into situations just slightly too shameful for them to confront, and then he gives them desires that are just slightly too embarrassing for them to acknowledge, and you know what? I feel kind of slimed by it.
However masterful the execution of this particularly cramped and small world view may be, I just don't want it in my head. There is a disdain on the pages for the idea that humans can be more than the sum of their petty grievances and desires.
My first read of 2022 and my first time reading Jonathan Franzen—what a way to kick-off the new year!
Crossroads serves as the first installment in Franzen's trilogy of novels that will presumably trace the Hildebrandt family from the 1970s, in which this novel takes place, to the present day (i.e. the 2020s?).
We begin in 1971. The place: New Prospect, Illinois. Russ Hildrebrandt is the patriarch of his family of six, as well as assistant pastor and recently disgraced youth group leader. He's been eliminated from his leadership position at Crossroads, the church's youth group, by the incoming Rick Ambrose, a more hip, with-the-times pastor. Russ instead focuses on his mission of serving his community through acts of service, with his eye on a more recent member of the congregation, Frances Cottrell.
Russ's wife (yes, he's married), Marion, juggles raising the kids and losing weight while attempting to play the role of happy housewife and pastor's wife for her community. It's all a bit too much as she grapples with her past and inner demons during the Christmas holiday.
Clem, Becky and Perry - the three eldest children of Russ and Marion - are all at their own crossroadsin life. Clem, away at college, is wrestling with a few choices that will drastically alter the shape of his life's trajectory. Becky, the most popular girl in school, must contend with an inheritance and what to do with it. And Perry dabbles in drug use while serving as the most precocious and darkly funny member of the Hildebrandt clan. Judson, the youngest child, is the only Hildebrandt who does not receive his own perspective, though I assume we may get more from him in later installments of this series.
What Franzen does so well in this novel is build realistic characters. They aren't necessarily likable people, but they make sense. They are as flawed and hypocritical and messy as any real person is. And while you may not always be rooting for them, you can't help but be curious what will happen. Franzen also expertly doles out information through various perspectives, in this god-like 3rd person narration, that bounces your sympathy around like a pinball. At any given moment he might upend your understanding of a character with a factoid of their past, or give their current actions justification (in the novel, not as in real life) based on something hidden.
While the plot is nothing special, for a nearly 600 page book it is incredibly readable. The summary of this book is essentially: follow an average American family in the 1970s over the course of a few key moments in their lives, particularly around Christmas and Easter. It's how Franzen is able to imbue an almost mythic quality and intensity to the events unfolding that elevates this from just a family saga to a 'great' American novel. I think he's started something really special with this trilogy and I can't wait to read more about the Hildebrandts in future books.
All in all, while I had a few minor issues with pacing in the last third of the novel, these characters are ones that will stick with me for a long time. This novel asks big questions - like what does it mean to be a good person? To what do we owe our family? And how can one balance serving others while not neglecting oneself? - without supplying any easy answers. It's in the grey, the minutiae of every day life that Franzen chooses to explore these themes and does so expertly.
What a God awful boring book. I picked it because I listed to and enjoyed The Corrections but this book was not even close to that earlier work. I was not prepared for all the Christian guilt, the shallow and thoroughly boring characters in this book. Do yourself a favor and find another book.
One of the things I like the most about reading Franzen is the depth of his characters. He really goes in there, to their past, to their every thought. And makes them memorable, people I imagine, people I can see as I walk in a street, I can´t read their minds, but if I only could, they would be in a book like this one. He is classic in the sense that he knows how to build a story that is deep, complicated, and wonderful. While I was reading this book, something that Flaubert says in one of his letters about writing came to my mind. He says that writers need to know about everything, they need to study and read, and if they are going to write a story, they have to read constantly. I feel that in a sense Franzen is that kind of writer, the writer who knows about religion, history, psychology, even brands of guitars (Martin and Guild are mentioned, that was kind of great), and everywhere he takes you is with the real world looking in. Family troubles seem to be his specialty, and the incredible thing is the tension, he never ever looses that, and the result is that you just can´t put it down. Did I mention he is one of my favorite living writers?
A me Franzen non sta simpatico ma per la miseria come scrive. Ha questa capacità, questo raccontare, questo addentrarsi nella mente umana, quest'approccio a qualsiasi tema - qui la religione - che non è mai banale e allo stesso tempo è scorrevole e quotidiano. E ama le famiglie disfunzionali tanto quanto me. Il suo scandagliare il personaggi, il suo prosare, il suo scegliere le tematiche diverse per ogni libro lo avvicinano quanto più possibile ad uno scrittore classico, in questo caso, a parere mio, al Dostoevskij dei Karamazov. Uno dei miei classici preferiti e leggendo Corssroads mi sono ritrovata a pensarci spesso. Forse solo io eh, però per piacerti questo romanzo ti deve piacere un po' il mondo classico e un po' il ragionamento filosofico ma non solo.
La famiglia del pastore Hildebrandt è degna di essere raccontata come solo Franzen sa fare. A partire dal pastore stesso fino ad ognuno dei suo quattro figli per non parlare della moglie, con una serie di continui rimandi al passato perfettamente incastrati con il pensiero del personaggio in quell'esatto istante. Sono tutti e sei odiosi in egual misura, tanto gli adolescenti quanto gli adulti, non si salva nessuno, tutti credono di essere salvi, come ciascuno di noi a giorni alterni.
È un romanzo di estrema maturità e ho letto che sarà parte di una trilogia, e tutto lo lascia supporre. Io, fin da ora, non vedo l'ora di sapere dove andranno a finire, anche se Franzen non è uno che lascia grandi speranze.
Ho aperto il primo Nebbiolo della stagione per festeggiare questo libro letto mentre le foglie cominciano a ingiallire, mentre la bora ti fa stringere il giubbotto sulle spalle, mentre l'imbrunire ti trasporta sul divano con una coperta sulle gambe,
Leggetelo quando avete tempo. Dategli il respiro che merita, come ai vini buoni, Franzen migliora di libro in libro.
In a blurb on the back of Crossroads, David Gates writes, "If you don't end up liking each one of Franzen's people, you probably just don't like people."
Granted, he was writing about a previous Franzen outing, The Corrections, but it set me to thinking, first about Crossroads and then about my sorry self. Did I like any of the people in this book?
Oh-oh. In all honesty, I did not. Unless you count the only Hildebrandt family member to not get his own chapters, 10-year-old Judson. There's nothing to dislike about the kid because, well, he's not really much characterized. As for his brothers Perry and Clem, oy. And sister Becky, vey. And the leads, Russ and Marion, my God. Or at least their God, who is constantly invoked, and is the most forgiving Fellow you'd ever want to meet (clearly drafted from the New rather than the Old Testament).
As for the book, I'll say this. This is top-grade soap. Well-written. Mostly page-turning, though Franzen occasionally drops exposition late in the game when readers are most sensitive to the plot-interrupting irritants in its ingredients. High marks, then. Like I was back in the 70s when Vietnam meant something. As did long hair. And pot. And booze. And Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice sex. Nothing rare here: well done, Jonathan!
Literature? I didn't find myself stopping to reread any sentences, really. For this joy ride, it's 600 pp. of plot and characterization chiefly fueled by dialogue. But readers like talk. People like talk. (Excepting, if we must, people who "just don't like people.")
So, overall, my first Franzen was an enjoyable one. What's weird is, I'm not sure I'll sign on for the second and third tomes of this trilogy (if that's what it is). This family steals all the bandwidth. They're all elephants shouting, "Let's not forget the elephant (editor's note: singular) in the room!"
Apparently there were no mirrors in the early 70s, for which we can only blame Nixon. And give the 70s that. At least crooks were called crooks and kicked out of office back then. No one worshiped them. No one fawned over them. And certainly no one made martyrs over them.
Bottom line: the book scores well, even if the characters score poorly and some of the melodrama gives your rolling eyes a challenging workout.
“Clem could see a problem with Camus… he assumed the existence of a unitary consciousness that rationally deliberated moral choices when in fact a person’s real motives were complex and uncontrollable (p.114).”
Crossroads is the story of a dysfunctional family on the brink. The family, the Hilderbrandts, father, Russ, an assistant Pastor in an affluent white suburb of Chicago, mother, Marion, housewife, and editor of her husband’s sermons and four children, three of whom are in their teens. The story takes place in the early 1970s and is written from the alternating perspectives of the parents and their three teenage children. It chronicles each character’s struggle to determine what it means to be a good person.
I am new to Franzen and what I enjoyed most was the in-depth psychological portraits of his characters. He captured their attempts to make deliberate moral choices and the underlying baggage that motivated their actions with great skill. I found his portrayal of Marion especially moving. Franzen understands the zeitgeist of the early 1970s in the US and does an excellent job depicting the interplay between the historical context and the individual story. I highly recommend it.
I know of few writers who write sentences as rhythmically perfect as Jonathan Franzen, and probe as deeply into what makes us tick. I loved this novel, especially its heart and the way it so honestly grapples with the idea of faith and God and, yes, the nexus of intention and belief. Also? I savored the time I spent with one family as they all tried to make sense of the way the world was changing in the early 1970s.
El título hace referencia a la canción 'Cross Road Blues', compuesta por Robert Johnson en 1937 y popularizada a final de los 60 en la versión de Eric Clapton y su grupo 'Cream'. Se ha asociado con la leyenda de que Robert Johnson encontró al diablo en una encrucijada de Mississipi y le vendió el alma a cambio de su talento musical único.
Cada uno de los personajes de Franzen en esta novela también se encuentran en una encrucijada, y para ellos la elección es entre el bien y el mal en un amplio sentido, del mismo modo que la sociedad americana de los primeros años 70 está en la disyuntiva de continuar con la injusta guerra de Vietnam o abrazar movimientos sociales comprometidos con el cambio social y la justicia. La espiritualidad, la transcendencia, ya sea en forma de diversas religiones - menonitas, anabaptistas, iglesia reformada, catolicismo, creencias de los indios navajos - o simplemente ética personal, planea sobre la obra y nos muestra cómo condiciona las decisiones que se toman a nivel individual o colectivo.
Pero al mismo tiempo es una novela sobre la complejidad de las emociones humanas. Seguimos a un matrimonio, Marian y Russ, con sus cuatro hijos adolescentes de distintas edades. Él es pastor de la Iglesia Reformada y lucha por equilibrar la ética idealista de su juventud con la realidad que le rodea y con sus propias pulsiones. Las relaciones entre la pareja, que atraviesa un bache importante, así como las que desarrollan con cada hijo y los hermanos entre sí (combinaciones de 6 elementos tomados de dos en dos, ¿cuántas son?) están fríamente analizadas y a la vez llenas de sentimientos. Es el gran logro de Franzen, a mi entender. Análisis y emoción. No ves al autor por ninguna parte, te lo ocultan los personajes, que llegas a considerar reales y te arrastran en sus historias. Después de leer tanto autor que se te aparece en cada página - mira-cómo-escribo-más-difícil-todavía - esa habilidad narrativa de Franzen, esa aparente simplicidad, esa cualidad decimonónica de desaparecer y transmitirte toda su ideología y visión social sin que lo percibas, simplemente haciendo hablar a unos personajes y una época, roza la excelencia.
El sentido de la vida, la búsqueda de la espiritualidad, la soledad implacable, las dinámicas sociales dominadas por la necesidad de ser aceptado y amado, la enfermedad mental, las drogas, todo está presente en esta obra que nos traslada por arte de magia a un momento histórico especial, el principio de los años 70, con la música, la contracultura y todos los cambios sociales que simbolizó Mayo del 68.
Uno de los personajes más inquietantes y más lúcidos es Perry, hijo adolescente del pastor, que plantea preguntas que hacen tambalear todos los esquemas:
- Mi pregunta - dijo Perry - es si alguna vez podemos escapar a nuestro propio egoísmo. Incluso si meten a Dios en la ecuación y hacen que él sea la medida de la bondad, la persona que lo venera y lo obedece quiere de todos modos algo para sí misma.
Se siente bien obrando con rectitud o quiere la vida eterna o lo que sea. Si se tiene la suficiente inteligencia para verlo, siempre hay un punto egoísta.
¿Una obra ambiciosa? No, lo siguiente. Porque la idea es que sea la primera parte de una trilogía que retratará la evolución de la sociedad americana en las últimas y transcendentales décadas del siglo XX. Yo ya estoy esperando la próxima.
So well-done, engaging, unpredictable, likeable, at times profound, moving at times, extraordinarily well-characterized, dramatic (plot-propelling conflict ever-arising), with stretches of believable, often religious/morality-related interiority, steady third-person focused on a Hildebrandt family member per chapter, dealing with all the vices and virtues of life, patient narrative pace that's nevertheless always revved up in veering, vervy language, sentences so often starting with some clause creating anticipation for subject and verb, with the locations and psychiatric concerns and some thematics (dynamics of generosity as in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) related to DFW grafted into the novel's structure and skin, especially with Perry (160 IQ, drug problem, so smart he's essentially stupid, ultimately tragic).
Really enjoyed reading nearly 100 pages a day, could see the world and these people and care for them, appreciated and admired the novel, but also so often everything seemed to reflect on the author, the characters' insecurities the author's (Russ's envy of the cooler Ambrose?), and the world so vividly evoked and realistic seemed mechanized if never false, arranged exactly this way by the author lord of that world, each part orchestrated and intentional, rarely inadvertent or intuitive.
The single lingering impression is that Franzen is a masterful author whose mastery is the single lingering impression -- I don't come away from the book thinking about its themes while otherwise doing dishes etc or with an image imprinted forever in my imagination (no matter how vivid the scenes are) or a sense of wonder or mystery or elevated perception of the inexhaustible abundance of life -- I come away thinking Franzen has defended his status as a major American writer. Which is weird. It's like he gets an A+, like he knows the contemporary literary fiction novel production game and plays it so wonderfully well, but there's a grade beyond grades that's unattainable for him, in part because he's too in control, there's not enough room for the reader to co-create the text?
Laughed aloud twice although most of the book is written with a sense of humor, veer and verve -- the humor is more in the implausibility of every family member undergoing a major life crisis at the exact time. Will definitely read Crossroads Part 2 and will probably even watch the related series on Netflix or HBO.
Of note, the guitar guy on the cover is playing a blues shuffle in A, like Johnny B. Goode more than Crossroads Blues, but at least it’s a blues rhythm form -- a meaningless superficial cover detail I liked.
Crossroads is a welcome immersive, big novel, remarkably taut and involving for its size. But it strikes me as a collage of laughable characters and situations, none of which ring true. Will Matt Groening write the screenplays for the animated The Hildebrandts sitcom series? 3.5 stars
Jonathan Franzen has a distinct style, and I for one am sold. In a recent interview he shared that he hoped he wrote the kind of books that made people want to keep turning pages to find out what happens next, like the ones that attract him and he can get lost in. I was surprised to learn, given the intricacies of his plotting and in particular his characterizations that he writes linearly, beginning at a certain point and not knowing where some of his people were going to end up or how they'd arrived at the point at which the reader meets them. Crossroads is a brilliant title for this book as it not only is the name of a youth group in a church in the early 1970's, but it also concerns pivotal events in each member of a pastor's family, a family with more than the usual number of secrets from one another. Roshomon-like, the novel moves over the same ground from many points of view, captivating in their utter ignorance of one another. When asked "why the 1970's?", Franzen (born in 1959) responded that it was the first era that resonated with him, that he had clear memories of, and that he felt the people of that time were the same as those of today and therefore relatable. I agree. I also believe that since this is the first installment of a promised trilogy, it gives him enough leeway to plough into the future, expanding the lives of the people he's introduced here. He says he's begun on Book II, and I can't wait.
A story of a family of six, Russ is an associate minister of a christian church in Illinois, his wife Marion has raised the kids, and their four children are at different stages in their lives. And what a troubled family they are, especially the parents and one son.
But they are all interesting with serious faults but they are all constantly changing through this fascinating novel. Jonathan Frazen can write.
It's not an easy read by any means, but you know you have been through the wringer by the end. Buckle up and enjoy.
"What a fucking family," a character declares about the Hildebrandt family at the heart of this epic domestic drama, and that really just about sums it up lol.
During several desperately needed breaks in my reading, I found myself simultaneously missing this family terribly, and dreading a return to their dysfunctional lives. They made me laugh, they pissed me off, they tried my patience, and they broke my heart. Just when I'd start to feel confident in my contempt for one character, the next chapter would come along to complicate and undercut that certainty. Let's just say my most hated character in the beginning turned out to be my favorite by the end of the book.
A little more than half of this hefty novel (at 580 pages, probably the longest book I've tackled since college) takes place on December 23, 1971, with chapters alternating points of view among the parents and three oldest children in the Hildebrandt family.
(Mild spoilers ahead, skip this paragraph if you prefer going in blind). There's Russ, the family patriarch and associate minister at a liberal Christian church in suburban Chicago, whose obsessive interest in a younger female parishioner threatens both his faith and his marriage; Marion, the seemingly dutiful preacher's wife who's hiding some dark secrets of her own; Clem, the oldest, whose freshman year at college and recent sexual awakening is putting his moral absolutism to the test; Becky, the only daughter, a pretty and popular cheerleader who starts participating in the church's youth ministry (called "Crossroads") in order to seduce a hot guy that she likes; and brilliant, arrogant, precocious 15-year-old Perry, who secretly sells and smokes weed. (Alas, poor Judson, the youngest, never gets his "My mother is a fish" moment in the spotlight I'd hoped for).
The novel follows each of these characters as they face various "crossroads" and grapple with their own personal understandings of God and what it means to be a "good" person, parent, spouse, sibling, etc. It's a novel of grand moral questions and epic religious themes explored through the quietest and smallest of moments. If you're a reader who prefers a strong plot and propulsive pacing, this probably isn't the novel for you.
But through these family members' intersecting and sometimes competing narratives, Franzen evokes a deeper kind of emotional suspense and tackles lots of "big" questions about religion, morality, grace (both human and divine), patriarchy, white privilege, and American identity.
Don't let the religious setting or Christian vernacular scare you away. Franzen is interested in questions bigger and broader than those answered by any individual doctrine or theology, which makes this accessible to people of faith and non-believers alike. I was able to enjoy this both as a "PK" (Preacher's Kid) who was active in my own church's teen ministry all throughout high school (growing up in Chicago, no less), and as the secular liberal gay atheist heathen I am today.
In terms of character development and thematic complexity, Franzen is a masterful writer, no doubt about that. But his actual prose was sometimes hit or miss for me. There are sentences so perfect and striking, I couldn't help but sit back to admire and envy Franzen's talent. But others seemed a little too "cute" and indulgent or self-consciously clever, distracting me with their artifice rather than immersing me in the writing, the way I'd prefer.
I also preferred the first half of the book, where the seamlessly interwoven stories all take place on the same winter day, a more accessible, Midwestern version of James Joyce's Ulysses, intimate and epic at the same time. The second half begins to run out of steam as Franzen steps back to cover weeks, months, and years at a time.
I was lucky enough to be able to process this as an informal "group read" with my GR friends Lisa and Bonnie, and their personal stories and illuminating insights helped me reexamine this book's characters and themes through their eyes and greatly enhanced my appreciation for Franzen's accomplishments here. At times our conversations felt more like intensive Group Therapy than typical "Book Club" chit-chat, but it's a testament to the richness and relatability of Franzen's writing that it was able to trigger so many painful past memories and inspire all three of us to reflect on our own life stories, familial relationships, and faith backgrounds in new and deeper ways.