Meike's Reviews > Crossroads

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
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it was amazing
bookshelves: usa, 2021-read

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.
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Reading Progress

September 29, 2021 – Started Reading
September 29, 2021 – Shelved
September 29, 2021 – Shelved as: usa
October 3, 2021 – Shelved as: 2021-read
October 3, 2021 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-41 of 41 (41 new)

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Tuti great review Meike - looking forward to this one!


Meike Tuti wrote: "great review Meike - looking forward to this one!"

Thanks, Tuti - when it comes to realist novel, Franzen just knows what he's doing!


message 3: by Toni (new)

Toni Meike fantastic review. Btw, Crossroads is also the name of a very large, Christian church. Thought that was an interesting tidbit.


Meike Elyse wrote: "Did you listen to the song by Johnson?
I’m not a blues fan but I did listen to the music and a few other at his songs.
I just finished reading it and I may write a longer review later or not I j..."


Thanks, Elyse! Yes, I linked to the song in my review. The novel is really good indeed, classic Franzen.


Meike Toni wrote: "Meike fantastic review. Btw, Crossroads is also the name of a very large, Christian church. Thought that was an interesting tidbit."

Thank you, Toni! I just googled this church, there is even one located in the Black Forest, apparently (not sure whether it's connected to the American version) - that's rather surprising, as pentecostalism is not a big thing over here, our Protestants are usually classic Lutherans.


Erin Glover Excellent review. I just finished this one and thought it was outstanding.


message 7: by Meike (last edited Oct 12, 2021 03:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Meike Erin wrote: "Excellent review. I just finished this one and thought it was outstanding."

Thank you very much, Erin! And yes, Franzen still got the gift, what a joy to read this novel!


Paul Teed Great review Meike. Just finished Crossroads and loved it. I read and loved Freedom and The Corrections but this one had special power for me. Your review captured much of what I liked about it.


Meike Paul wrote: "Great review Meike. Just finished Crossroads and loved it. I read and loved Freedom and The Corrections but this one had special power for me. Your review captured much of what I liked about it."

Thank you very much, Paul!! I have a special love for Freedom, but "a key to all mythologies" as a whole might surpass it - can't wait for the other two parts!


message 10: by Jon (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jon Conley Great comparison to the likes of DFW. I also thought about this while reading Crossroads - that they were friends early in their careers (and although were different writers in many ways they almost seem now like two sides of the same coin in others). It felt like there were homages to IJ for instance that Perry was basically Hal from IJ (young manipulative calculating genius gravitating towards substance abuse, etc) but with Hal's worst fears materialized - everyone knows (and he knows that they know) about the substance issues, and of course the intentionally awkward situations like simply wanting to be in Crossroads, etc. And Hal and Perry are kinda sorta left in the same state at the "end" of both books.


Meike Jon wrote: "Great comparison to the likes of DFW. I also thought about this while reading Crossroads - that they were friends early in their careers (and although were different writers in many ways they almos..."

While I didn't see Hal in Perry, that's a very interesting angle, who knows what Franzen was thinking! Ahh, I wish DFW was still among us, all the things that he could write...


message 12: by Cindy (new) - added it

Cindy Schöne Review! Ich habe das Hörbuch schon hier und freu mich jetzt noch mehr darauf.


Meike Cindy wrote: "Schöne Review! Ich habe das Hörbuch schon hier und freu mich jetzt noch mehr darauf."

Danke, und viel Spaß mit dem Hörbuch, Cindy!!


Maureen Meleady I agree with your rating, Mike. I just didn't want it to end.


Meike Maureen wrote: "I agree with your rating, Mike. I just didn't want it to end."

Yes, Maureen, what a wonderful novel!


Wendy Great review. Just finished Crossroads. So engrossing and wonderfully ambitious.

My understanding is that Franzen is from my hometown of St. Louis.


Meike Wendy wrote: "Great review. Just finished Crossroads. So engrossing and wonderfully ambitious...

Thank you for your kind words, Wendy! Franzen was born in Western Springs, Illinois, his family later moved to a suburb of St. Louis.


Christian Buttner Great review! I also was disappointed with Purity but loved The Corrections and Freedom and I too think Crossroads was this most pleasurable to read: it's a real page turner and tragically hilarious. I can't wait for the next one.


Meike Christian wrote: "Great review! I also was disappointed with Purity but loved The Corrections and Freedom and I too think Crossroads was this most pleasurable to read: it's a real page turner and tragically hilariou..."

Thank you, Christian! And yes, I also cannot wait for part 2!


Cristian Ligüeño Great review, today I finished and I loved it!!


Meike Cristian wrote: "Great review, today I finished and I loved it!!"

Thank you, Christian!


message 22: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary Rayis I’m an outlier who really enjoyed Purity, but I agree wholeheartedly with your review of Crossroads. I anxiously await the next installment.


Meike Mary wrote: "I’m an outlier who really enjoyed Purity, but I agree wholeheartedly with your review of Crossroads. I anxiously await the next installment."

It's always great when another reader enjoyed a book more, so it's wonderful that you loved Purity, and I also can't wait for A Key To All Mythologies Part 2! :-)


message 24: by Seth (new) - rated it 5 stars

Seth Great review - thanks!


Meike Seth wrote: "Great review - thanks!"

Thanks, Seth!


message 26: by J (new) - rated it 4 stars

J Really good analysis


message 27: by J (new) - rated it 4 stars

J I thought, in the character of Perry, we get the most DFW-like version of Franzen.


Meike J wrote: "Really good analysis"

Thanks, J!


Meike J wrote: "I thought, in the character of Perry, we get the most DFW-like version of Franzen."

You could certainly make that argument. I felt like the scope of the novel and how it ponders the chasm between moral aim and factual failure is very DFW.


message 30: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Great review—it’s also the first review I’ve read, and I didn’t realize it was a trilogy (that was very helpful to know!). I thought it was just one of those literary-ish ambiguous endings. :) Very glad to hear that the journey of these characters continues.


Meike John wrote: "Great review—it’s also the first review I’ve read, and I didn’t realize it was a trilogy (that was very helpful to know!). I thought it was just one of those literary-ish ambiguous endings. :) Very..."

Thank you, John, I'm also looking forward to reading the next installments!


message 32: by Alexandra (new)

Alexandra mit Franzen bin ich durch habe 2 Romane Korrekturen und Freiheit gelesen und gebe jetzt auf. Den finde ich soo furchtbar vor allem diese episch breite Geschwätzigkeit von Nutzlosigkeiten und Petitessen, Entwicklung von Nebenfiguren, im Gegensatz dazu, dass er seine Protagonisten total vernachlässigt die werden meiner Meinung nach nie tiefer sondern der Charakter immer verwischter.
Also ich komme gar nicht mit Franzen zurecht


Meike Alexandra wrote: "mit Franzen bin ich durch habe 2 Romane Korrekturen und Freiheit gelesen und gebe jetzt auf. Den finde ich soo furchtbar vor allem diese episch breite Geschwätzigkeit von Nutzlosigkeiten und Petite..."

Deine Einzelmeinung sei Dir gegönnt! :-)


message 34: by Alexandra (new)

Alexandra ja manchmal spießt sich meine Einzelmeinung gaanz massiv mit der allgemeinen Meinung vor allembei amerikanischen Autoren 😜 und bei den Österreichern


message 35: by Barb (new) - rated it 5 stars

Barb You distilled the essence of this book so very well. It’s a very powerful and moving book.


Meike Barb wrote: "You distilled the essence of this book so very well. It’s a very powerful and moving book."

Thank you very much, Barb!


Kerry Ah!! Now I understand why I didn’t understand where to put the ending! Thank you for this review!


Meike Kerry wrote: "Ah!! Now I understand why I didn’t understand where to put the ending! Thank you for this review!"

Hahaha, Kerry - let's hope the next two parts are just as good! :-)


Florence Yes! Definitely "a book about morality, about the discrepancy between outward appearances and inward urges...virtue signaling, de-platforming, old white men, cultural appropriation ... and social movements". I would like to add one more element...benevolent sexism. I can't wait to hear how these women deal with their well-intentioned but limiting spouses.


message 40: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John The book is almost a novelization of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism.


Meike Florence wrote: "Yes! Definitely "a book about morality, about the discrepancy between outward appearances and inward urges...virtue signaling, de-platforming, old white men, cultural appropriation ... and social m..."

Thank you, Florence - I want to know, too! (And sorry for the late reply, GR didn't notify me)


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