Saturday 23 October 2021


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Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen   {Reviewed by STELLA}
Meet the Hildebrandt family and dive right into Jonathan Franzen’s most brilliant novel yet. It’s 1971 and this American family is at a crossroads, figuratively and literally. Russ, the once edgy — “I marched with Stokely Carmichael ''  — young minister is now the middle-aged pastor of a suburban Chicago church and feeling his charm slip away. Especially in contrast to the younger, much hipper Rick Ambrose, youth group leader of Crosslands. The youth group is drawing the spaced out, far out kids with its ‘folk music and honesty’ style of faith. Yet Russ thinks he still has what it takes and his wandering eye is alighting on the attractive widow Frances. Never mind that he is married to Marion and has four children. And what children they are. Clem, Becky, Perry and the youngest Jude. Clem finds his father an embarrassment and is happy to be out and away — a scholarship in hand for college. He finds love — well, sex actually — and is struggling to keep on top of his study. This would all rock along in an oh-so-normal way if it wasn’t for his back-to-front thinking about Vietnam. Exempt from the draft, he decides his privilege of being a university student goes against his principles. His guilt and a perverse wish to piss off his father lead him to drop out, dismiss the wishes of his girlfriend, and sign up. However, by the time he gets around to making his decision, it’s too late and the forces are starting to depart the war, rather than recruit. On a visit home, his disgust towards his father’s hypocrisy is the final straw and he makes a clean break from the family even though he can sense the walls of family cohesion are falling away. Becky, always popular in school and most likely to succeed, is having a mini-crisis. Her favourite brother, Clem, is no longer worth looking up to — in her eyes, he has been corrupted by lust — and an inheritance from her favourite aunt which would have seen her being able to attend the college of her choice is a topic of fraught conversations with her parents, particularly her father, as they struggle financially on his associate pastor’s salary. When she simultaneously falls for the lead guitarist in a local band and has a spiritual epiphany, both highly misguided events, Becky is strangely unanchored from the girl she used to be and her future is no longer mapped out. And then there’s the genius of the family, Perry. A classic too-smart-for-his-own-good tagline would work here, as his curiosity, boredom and obsessive nature propel him on the train wreck of drugs, addiction and dishonesty. (Despite this, he's still my favourite of the siblings). A whirlwind for him and a slow train wreck for everyone around him. And if this isn’t enough of a magnifying glass on family life in the suburbs in 1971, there’s Marion. When the story opens she’s the loyal, underappreciated preacher’s wife, mother to four supposedly wonderful children doing her bit to keep life ticking along, massaging her husband’s ego, encouraging her children and playing her role. Yet she’s desperate to jump out of her frumpy overweight middle-aged self and to find her repressed younger self still screaming at her. This Marion and her past secrets are in need of redemption. And she really does need to surface, in light of Russ’ infidelity, Clem’s withdrawal, Becky’s strange about-turn and Perry’s addiction, and of course, Jude deserves better. Franzen’s Crossroads, the first book in the trilogy about the Hildebrandts is American society seen in the microscope, infused with music, drugs, salvation and damnation. It’s clever, expertly paced (compelling from start to finish in all its 600 pages), a saga by description and enjoyable as such, but really a morality tale; a meditation on goodness and what that might look like from different perspectives. What makes a person — and to a greater extent a society — ‘good’? I’m looking forward to the next instalments and recommend Crossroads for your summer reading pile.

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