"Crossroads" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Born in suburban Chicago, raised and educated in suburban St. Louis, Jonathan Franzen is a voice of the post-World War II evolving middle class. Set in the early 1970s, Franzen’s latest novel, “Crossroads,” continues his exploration of the social, moral, geopolitical and spiritual forces that shaped that era and those to follow.
“Crossroads” tells the story of the Hildebrandt family of New Prospect, Illinois, a fictional Chicago suburb, likely based on Franzen’s childhood home of Western Springs. Russ, the father, is associate pastor of First Reformed congregation. His wife, Marion, struggles with her weight and her attempts to restore her marital relationship to its earliest days.
The Hildebrandts have four children. Clem, a freshman at the University of Illinois in Urbana, has declared himself an agnostic and has fallen into an intimate relationship, his first, with a young woman. Becky is a pretty and popular high school student whose relationship with her father’s church is tenuous at best until she takes up with a classmate who is seemingly more devout. Middle school student Perry is an intellectually advanced recreational drug user who, out of necessity, becomes a dealer as well. And Judson, the youngest, is Perry’s adoring acolyte.
Franzen’s narrative is told, in alternating chapters, from the viewpoints of each of the members of the Hildebrandt family. Each chapter develops backstory, details the struggles each of them endures to seek “goodness,” and ultimately defines how each Hildebrandt achieves some form of redemption.
Those who have read Franzen’s earlier novels (“The Corrections” being the most notable example) will recognize his fascination with the moral and societal complexities and contradictions of life in the late 20th century suburbs. Yet “Crossroads” digs more deeply into the lives of the people in those suburbs, their secrets, and the hidden truths behind their characters. This is a big novel of nearly 600 pages, but few of the words on those pages are wasted; each unpeels layers of the lives of the characters that inhabit them.
“Crossroads” is the first of a projected Franzen trilogy called “A Key to All Mythologies.” One has to wonder what those mythologies might be; Organized religion? Social stratification? The nature of the modern family? And one has to wonder as well if the next two novels will continue the history of the Hildebrandts (Updike’s “Rabbit” series, anyone?).
Each family member’s story arc is left hanging at the novel’s conclusion, and the story of Judson, the youngest Hildebrandt, has only barely begun to be developed in “Crossroads.”