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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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
In this complex and poignant novel, Jonathan Franzen explores how American life changed during the 1970s. Russ, the patriarch of the Hildebrandt clan, is losing his grip on both his family and the suburban Chicago church where he serves as pastor. Russ’ lust for another woman strains his relationship with his wife, Marion, who has her own fascinating issues to work through. Each of the four Hildebrandt kids has strayed from Russ’ accepted path, exploring drugs, sex, and a strangely alluring youth group led by a rival pastor. Franzen uses each teenager’s relationship with the church to reveal a ton about their character, from Becky’s unnerving infatuation with Jesus to Perry’s descent into drugs to Clem’s struggle to choose between college and the military. He gives his characters plenty of room to reveal their multiple layers, and every moment of it is fascinating. Crossroads is sure to be one of the most discussed—and argued-over—books of 2021.
Franzen (Purity) returns with a sweeping and masterly examination of the shifting culture of early 1970s America, the first in a trilogy. The action is centered on the small Illinois town of New Prospect, where the each of the Hildebrandts is experiencing a sea change. The father, Russ, is an associate minister at First Reformed Church and has developed an illicit attraction to a new parishioner, the widow Frances Cottrell, whose zest for life makes Russ feel a renewed sense of his "edge." Russ is also embroiled in a yearslong feud with Rick Ambrose, who runs the church's youth organization, Crossroads. Clem, Russ's oldest son, is at college and having a sexual awakening with his girlfriend, Sharon, who pleads with him not to drop out and lose his deferment ("I'm going to do whatever they want me to do, which probably means Vietnam," he says, referencing his low lottery number). Becky, Clem's younger sister, inherits a large sum of money from an aunt and isn't sure if she should share it with her brothers, especially Perry, the youngest, who is brilliant but cold and self-medicates with weed and 'ludes. All of the characters' sections are convincingly rendered, and perhaps best of all are those narrated by Russ's wife, Marion, who had a psychotic breakdown 30 years earlier that she is just starting to come to terms with. As complications stack up for the Hildebrandts, they each confront temptation and epiphany, failure and love. Throughout, Franzen exhibits his remarkable ability to build suspense through fraught interpersonal dynamics. It's irresistible.