I just can’t quit the crazy.
Dysfunctional family drama has long been my jam, so while haters are gonna hate, I had no problem diving right into Jonathan Franzen’s latest, “Crossroads.“
Set in the fictional town of New Prospect (Mount Prospect?), Illinois in the early 70s, this is the (I hope) first of three novels spanning several generations of the Hildebrandts, a liberal, maybe-yes-no-maybe-ok-a-little-but-wow-maybe-a-lot-no-definitely-not-religiously confused family. New Reformed’s associate pastor Russ is the family’s patriarch, with wife Marion, and their four kids — Clem, Becky, Perry and Judson — rounding out the crew that sucks the reader right into their sexually frustrated drama.
And it’s a group of people that are going to live rent-free inside my head for quite some time.
You’ve got Russ, who, thanks to Franzen’s ability to bring both breadth and depth to the table with character development, had me saying “This guy is such an asshole!” out loud to myself more than once. Insanely jealous of the much hipper youth pastor, Rick Ambrose, insanely jealous of the fact his wife has more sexual experience than he, more desperate to be liked by the cool kids than his daughter, queen of the cool kids, cares, Russ is a straight up hot mess of a man on a mission. To get laid. And not by Marion.
Marion, Russ’ wife, brings an entire luggage set of issues to the Hildebrandt homestead, with a background full of mental illness compounded by youthfully immature bad decision making and honestly, just a trail of tragedy.
Clem the oldest son, left home and the family church only to find God between the legs of an older student during his fall semester of his freshman year at the University of Illinois. Aghast at the contradiction, he throws his life into a tailspin of all tailspins.
Not to be outdone by his brother, 15-year-old Perry has been self-medicating through his mental illness, only kinda sorta unknown to —more aptly, ignored by —his family. The only one to really call him on it is his older sister Becky, who’s had to navigate the role of oldest sib since Clem left for school, all the while maintaining high standards of popularity and falling hard for her first real crush, a musician named Tanner Evans.
And then there’s poor Jay — Judson — the youngest of the clan, the family peacekeeper and somewhat overlooked, though I suspect that’s on purpose and we’ll see more of him down the road.
At close to 600 pages, it’s a daunting read and I was lucky enough to be trapped on a road trip that gave me time to actually just sit and, well, read. Given it’s that long, you’d think it spans decades, but nope — much of the narrative is spent on a single holiday season, albeit with a lot of backstory sprinkled in. This family, just … wow.
My engagement with religion is fairly minimal when I step back and objectively take stock, so I’d love to know what a person firm in their faith thinks of this story. Minus Judson, each of the characters wrestles with their relationship with God and faith and humanity and from this girl’s perch, it seems like their battle with what they believe is all the more traumatic both because of and in spite of organized religion. Russ is cut off from his family. Marion’s choices put her in hot water as well. Perry thinks he IS God. It’s a lot.
I’m a Franzen fangirl, so consider that when I say this — I’d rank “Crossroads” as his best work yet. It’s complex, rich in detail, not overwrought and, despite the nonstop drama, incredibly real. I wouldn’t wish these mishaps on anyone, but I certainly believe they could happen. If you are down for some good, long storytelling, pick this up.