Something I wasn’t aware of when I read this book (I’m not quite sure how I missed it) but other potential readers may want to know – this book is meant to be the first in a trilogy. I came across that piece of information before I finished the novel but after I was well into it. Knowing that helped me to understand the end of this novel, which feels less like a conclusion and more like a chapter break. Because, essentially, it is just a chapter break.
But that’s the end, and you’ll start this book at the beginning. I know Franzen is wildly popular, and from my own hometown, and writes the sort of books that I enjoy – but I haven’t read any of his work before this book. So I cannot compare any of Franzen’s previous writing to this book – I won’t be able to say whether this is better or worse than The Corrections. Comparisons aside, this novel was very intimate for a book of its length. At nearly 600 pages, this book is an investment – and now I suppose I’ve committed myself to reading at least two more, quite likely of similar length. I’m happy enough to go all in on this story, though – I’m here to report that this book was very good, maybe even great.
The story is centered around a dysfunctional family in a small Midwestern town in 1971. Each member of this family, with the possible exception of the youngest son (9 year old Judson, everyone’s favorite yet so very overlooked), is dealing with a crisis of faith and personality. Russ Hildebrandt, patriarch, pastor of a local church, contemplates an affair with a widowed parishioner, which obviously has an impact on his marriage to Marion. Marion has her own crisis to deal with – she has secrets in her past she has only hinted at to her husband and about which her children are completely unaware. Marion is most likely to spill her secrets to her favorite son, Perry – a genius who struggles to connect to his family and the world around him, and so prefers the sweet abyss of drug use. Perry’s life as a sophomore in high school is lived in contrast to his elder sister Becky (a senior) – Becky is essentially the Queen Bee of their small town social scene. She’s smart, popular, and far closer to the eldest of the Hildebrandt clan, Clem, than her younger brothers. Clem and Becky have the sort of overly close brother-sister relationship that provided them a great deal of comfort when they were younger -but now that Clem is in college, experiencing his first girlfriend and life outside of his family, that relationship is strained.
Each chapter explores life from the perspective of one of the Hildebrandt’s (except, of course, Judson, who I hope gets a perspective of his own in future installments). Marion was by far the most compelling for me – hers is a portrait of a woman coming undone and attempting in every way she can to hold together the pieces of her life. She is certainly far more sympathetic than her husband Russ – a character that made my skin crawl. While each and every one of the Hildebrandt’s (except, of course, Judson) are fairly self absorbed, the degree to which Russ cannot fathom an interior life for anyone (least of all a WOMAN) is pretty incredible. As a pastor, his job should be about connection – and yet, I don’t think he authentically connected with anyone in this novel. Russ’s interpersonal issues lead to problems with the youth group associated with his church – Crossroads, from which the book derives its title. A lot of the tension in the novel is built from the relationship that each family member has with this group, and with each other.
All 5 of the Hildebrandt’s whose life we step into are deep thinkers, although Becky may be the least willing to engage with the philosophical context of her life. Franzen has written characters whose ability to discuss faith, through inner contemplation and, occasionally to hilarious effect, with other willing and unwilling interlocutors, is unparalleled (which makes sense for the family of a Mennonite-turned-Christian-pastor and a half-Jewish-sort-of-Catholic mother). This book is both funny and tragic, an absorbing combination.
As mentioned above, the last section of the book speeds up time and feels very much as though it is setting the characters up for something else. I am looking forward to the next installment, for better or worse I’m invested in the Hildebrandt family now.