Crossroads (2021) – Jonathan Franzen

Author:Jonathan Franzen
Publisher/s:4th Estate/Jonathan Ball Publishers
Date published:2021
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Jonathan Ball Publishers kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“Nothing is more important than family”.

Crossroads is a saga. The kind that spends chapters detailing a specific moment in time, and then crossing back to where it all began. This is a story about two generations of a family who are alive two days before Christmas of 1971. The ‘60s are still in the air, the Vietnam war is ongoing, and America seems to be going through (another) ethical crisis.

Russ is the patriarch of the Hildebrandt family. He is a pastor at the First Reformed Church in the Chicago suburb of New Prospect. It’s a fairly liberal church, but much to Russ’ horror he has not been deemed ‘cool’ enough to continue running Crossroads, the church’s ever-growing, and popular youth group. No, that prestigious job goes to Rick Ambrose. All the kids in New Prospect dig Rick. Russ is considered too religious and too serious for the teenagers that hang out at Crossroads. Recently, two of Russ’ own children have joined the group, leaving their father feeling betrayed and even more out of the loop. At this point, Russ feels disconnected from his entire family and has also been seriously considering having an affair with one of his parishioners.

Russ’ wife Marion has struggled with her weight for years and feels that the only way that she can be and feel desirable again is by losing some pounds. Unbeknownst to her kids and her husband Marion has a very traumatic past that she never speaks about, and by some strange coincidence, she has also seriously been considering having an affair with a man from that same secret past.

The Hildebrandt’s eldest son Clem prides himself on not being at all religious despite his upbringing. He has managed to avoid the draft and escape his family’s clutches by being accepted to study at the University of Illinois. His girlfriend Sharon’s brother is fighting in Vietnam, and Clem’s refusal to join has become a bone of contention in their relationship. Suddenly Clem finds himself making a very rash decision that he knows will devastate his family.

Becky is the only daughter in the Hildebrandt clan and has spent all of her 18 years being popular and adored, but also very much a square. After she decides to join Crossroads because her crush Tanner Evans is a member, Becky starts to rebel and makes decisions that even Becky realizes are out of character.

Perry is 16 and spending his teenage years experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Though he always has good intentions, he often gets in trouble and is starting to veer dangerously close to a mental breakdown – something his mother understands all too well.

Judson is the youngest of the Hildebrandt children and exists on the periphery of his family’s lives, and dramas. In many ways, Judson is the voice of sanity, and reason, even if he is only nine years old. Unlike his siblings, Judson appears to be the only one not completely wrapped up in his own self-contained world.

This is a novel about two generations grappling with morality, ethics, and being Christian. One generation is grappling with the past, and the other is struggling with the foreseeable future amidst a wave of sex, drugs, and the looming threat of war. During a brief chunk of time, they will crash into one another through the bindings of faith and family, and then pass by each other as though disconnected by lies and an innate need to keep up appearances. Cloaked in the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s the Hildebrandts are a family that must not only come to terms with their relationship with God, but also their relationship with one another, and the changing world around them.

Jonathan Franzen is considered an incredible novelist because he writes paragraphs that stretch on into the unknown and wind themselves around a character or an emotion, and then dance themselves back to the beginning. Crossroads is befitting of its title because even though there’s a literary fork in the road, Franzen will take you back to where you need to be.

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