Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen: A review

 

Having finished with William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience may have prepared me for reading Jonathan Franzen's latest. It is a book with strong religious themes and each member of the Hildebrandt family around whom he builds his story experiences religion or rejection of religion in his/her own individual way. Franzen has said that this book is the first in a planned trilogy that, in a nod to Middlemarch, he calls A Key to All Mythologies

This is a very different book from his others that I have read. For one thing, it is long, nearly 600 pages and it builds very slowly. It is set in the 1970s and the feeling of it is mellow, definitely lacking the acerbic manners of some of his previous novels.

The Hildebrandt family lives in suburban Chicago in fictional New Prospect. It is comprised of husband Russ, wife Marion, and four children: Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson. Russ is the associate pastor of a local liberal church called First Reform where there is a popular youth group called Crossroads. Its name is a reference to the choices young people must make about their lives, but here it also refers to Russ who seems to be at a crossroads in his own life. And throughout the book, each of the Hildebrandts, except for the youngest, Judson, faces a crossroads of some kind.

Russ is middle-aged and dissatisfied. He is a tall, attractive man, who reminds people of Charlton Heston while his wife, Marion, after four children and years of being stuck in mommyhood is now overweight and a bit unkempt, and a careless dresser. Russ definitely feels that he could do better and he has a candidate in mind. She's a pretty, young, blond widow in his church who has reached out to him for counseling. She has a teenage son who knows and idolizes Perry, Russ' son.

In his flirty interactions with the widow, Russ mentions that he is a fan of the blues and owns a lot of old blues records, including those of Robert Johnson, who, according to the legend, met the devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi and exchanged his soul for mastery of the guitar. The allegory is clear. Russ, too,  must decide what the devil has to offer him. He loans some of those records to the widow, hoping they will have the desired effect.

Marion, meanwhile, is not unaware of Russ's desire to stray and essentially gives him permission to do it. She is taking stock of her own life and making changes, not to get her husband's attention but to regain her own self-respect and self-image. She will be a frump no longer. 

As we learn about Marion's life, it becomes clear that there is much of her background that is unknown to Russ. In her 20s, she had had an affair with a married man and became pregnant. The only recourse available to her for an abortion was from a man who as payment got to rape her repeatedly over many days. She suffered from severe depression and spent months in a mental hospital. When she got out, she turned to religion and the church to sustain her. It was at the church that she met Russ. She later told him that she had had a brief marriage that ended in divorce; she did not tell him the truth about her background.

For me, Marion was the most fully realized character of the novel. I admit that may be a gender bias, but she was the character I could most, if not identify with at least understand where she was coming from, what motivated her. She describes herself as a mother of four "with a 20-year-old's heart." She feels that she is not a good person, but she is determined to change her life for the better.

As for the Hildebrandt children, Clem is off to college where he experiences sexual awakening and a moral dilemma. He is so obsessed with his new sexual relationship that he's unable to concentrate on course work and his grades suffer. He decides that he doesn't deserve to keep his academic exemption from the draft. He writes to his draft board that he is quitting school and giving that up and he's ready to be drafted and to go to Vietnam. This is a blow to his pacifist father and that is part of the attraction for Clem.

Becky is the most strictly religious of the children, her father's favorite. She is the social star at her high school. Everybody wants to be in her group. She has her own awakening when she is attracted to Tanner, a boy at the church who is part of a rock 'n' roll band. Through him, she enters into that world which also gives her an experience with drugs. Her sexual relationship with Tanner changes the course of her life forever.  

Perry may be a genius. He's certainly very smart, but not smart enough to stay away from drugs. He becomes not just a consumer but a purveyor of drugs and his promising life spins out of control.

Judson is a bit of an enigma. He is a very laid-back and seemingly well-adjusted child. We don't see much of him in this novel but I suspect he may play a larger role in the sequels that follow.

There's a lot going on in this book including adultery, suicide attempts, arson, a car wreck, and the list goes on. It's difficult to sum it all up. Much of the action relates to that church group's work with the Navajos. Russ is very deeply involved in that. He suffers several professional humiliations when the group no longer wants him and he is replaced by a younger, cooler man. He hates that man and refuses to speak or interact with him. He plots ways to thwart him. Marion, meanwhile, loses her excess weight and recovers her former selfhood. In her reformed life, she manages to deflate Russ's own high opinion of himself. 

This is one of those books that stays with you and that one mulls over its meaning. I remember one of the reviews that I read of it made the comparison to the work of Joseph Campbell and I think I can see that now. God and sex - those are the major themes of the book; how those two "cultural ideas" control our lives in so many ways. It's a book that does not lack for sympathy with human frailties. That, too, is a bit of a difference from some of Franzen's earlier novels that were less forgiving. When I finished reading the book last week, I initially rated it as four stars, but I want to amend that. Having given it more thought, I think it deserves five. Of all the Franzen books I've read, I feel this is the best. It will be interesting to see where the trilogy goes.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. I'm glad you liked this one so much. Sadly, there is nothing about it that makes me want to read it. Despite your lovely review, I will be passing on this one. :)

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    1. One should not waste time with a book that is of no interest to her.

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  2. Glad to see this one hit all the right marks with you as well; I loved it but, I bet we will have to wait several years for book #2. I may reread this if it is more than a few years. As always, I loved your review.

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    1. He is typically several years between books and by the time the next one comes out, I will likely have forgotten all or most of this plot.

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  3. God and sex. It's amazing how many people torment themselves with both. Dismiss god and enjoy sex. That's my answer!

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    1. That's an answer that works for a lot of people!

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  4. The inside story of a church and its leading family. Not the rosy picture that most would like to project, but unfortunately the truth is that there are no perfect families and "religion" doesn't inoculate people from human problems.

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    1. Indeed. In fact, it sometimes creates a separate set of problems all its own.

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  5. This one sounds like quite the epic, and maybe one for me to tackle next year. I'm tinkering with the idea of reading some of the longer books that I generally avoid in favor of reading more books in a given year. I think I worry too much about what I'm missing by devoting the time required to do justice to complicated, long novels like this one.

    Glad to see the James book turned out to be helpful. :-)

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    1. I definitely think the James book prepared me in a sense for the Hildebrandts.

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  6. I have this one, and I've been trying to decide whether to read it or pass it along to someone else. If you have given this book five stars, I think it deserves a serious attempt at a read.

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    1. The plot develops slowly and it took me a while to get into it but by the end I was fully invested in the Hildebrandt family.

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  7. Wow 5 stars. I definitely hope to read it in 2022. Franzen is an important writer. I liked Purity but this one sounds much different. Would you say it's a slow read all the way through? Or does it pick up? thanks

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    1. It builds very slowly because there is so much detail about each of the characters. We get to know each of them quite well over the course of this fairly long book.

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