Family Dynamics

In the ambit of contemporary American literature, one of the most popular names is Jonathan Franzen. A novelist and an essayist, he has established himself to be one of the top-notch writers of his generation. His third novel, The Corrections (2001), a satirical family drama, gave him a major literary breakthrough. It was critically acclaimed, earning him several accolades from different parts of the world, such as the National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was also a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. His fourth novel, Freedom (2010), was equally warmly received by readers and critics alike, thus, solidifying his status as one of contemporary America’s premier writers. Some literary pundits were even calling him one of the Great American novelists.

But among the plenitude of accolades and songs of praises he received over his career were the controversies attached to his name. Among the most prominent of which was his highly publicized feud with Oprah Winfrey after The Corrections was picked by Winfrey’s book club. More controversies would ensue and surround his name but Franzen’s writing latent talent for storytelling and writing was his greatest redeeming quality. Despite the feud with a popular television personality, Franzen’s writing career continued to flourish. Freedom, published in 2010 and his first novel since The Corrections, consolidated his status as one of the most decorated writers of his generation. In 2021, he made a literary comeback with his latest novel, Crossroads.

In his sixth novel, Franzen returned to his comfort zone. Set in the fictional small suburban town of New Prospect, Illinois, Crossroads charted the stories of the members of the Hildebrandt family. The story commenced in the winter of 1971 and first introduced the family patriarch, Russ. Russ was an associate pastor at the local First Reformed church. Driven by his profound idealism and his liturgical views, he founded a youth group in the church, the titular Crossroads. However, after an unexpected turn of events, he was kicked out of the group. In his stead, Rick Ambrose was installed as the youth group’s leader, to Russ’ dismay. Rick was more charismatic albeit less conventionally liturgical with his leadership views. This drew Russ’ ire and his jealousy which eventually snowballed into a sort of rivalry. Russ’ two children joining the Crossroads further stoked the feud.

“It was unfair to have enjoyed her body when she was young and then burdened her with children and a thousand duties, only to now feel miserable whenever he had to venture into public with her and her sorry hair, her unavailing makeup, her seemingly self-spiting choice of dress. He pitied her for the unfairness; he felt guilty. But he couldn’t help blaming her, too, because her unattractiveness advertised unhappiness.”

~ Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads

While Russ was caught in a feud with Ambrose, at home, his wife Marion was busy with the upkeep of the family home. She was the quintessence of a pastor’s wife, even ghostwriting his sermons. The couple had four children: Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson. Except for Judson, the Hildebrandt children have all reached their teenage years. One rarely encounters a portrait of a perfect family, and Crossroads does not purport to introduce one. After years of being together, Russ and Marion’s marriage was entering a shaky phase. The cracks have begun to manifest although these cracks have always been present from the onset of their relationship, only muddled by their new responsibilities. The end, it seemed, was in sight as Russ started contemplating ending their marriage. As he emotionally withdraws from his joyless marriage, Russ found himself increasingly drawn to a young widowed church member. He flirted with her, even lending her his favorite Robert Johnson records, hoping that it would eventually lead to an affair of sexual nature.

Marion, on the other hand, was dealing with her own concerns that kept plaguing her. Behind the façade of a servile pastor’s wife was a woman, wife, and mother who was equally unhappy in her marriage. However, there was more to her unhappiness than meets the eye. While performing her duties as a mother and a wife, Marion was attending therapy sessions clandestinely. She was also trying to exorcise the demons of her past, seeking help in order to come to terms with her past traumatic experiences which started to resurface, threatening her peace. These traumatic experiences transpired while she living in Los Angeles before meeting Russ, a past she had hidden from her husband and her family. This reckoning has awakened old habits that also threaten to further destabilize her marriage.

Crossroads slowly takes a different meaning. It was no mere youth organization. In the broader sense of the word, it represented the crossroads the members of the Hildebrandt family found themselves at. But it was not only the parents who had concerns of their own. As the story moved forward, the voices of the three eldest children figured into the story. On the surface, the Hildebrandt children seemed fine and dependable but the facade belied their own concerns. This added layers to what was developing as the vivid portrait of a dysfunctional midwestern family. The eldest son, Clem was, in many ways, like his father, sharing his father’s pacifist views. After securing a deferment, he entered the University of Illinois only to drop out after a eureka moment. Disillusioned, Clem was struggling to create an image of himself separate from that of his father.

His younger sister, Becky, was a beautiful cheerleader and one of the most popular students in her school. The only rose among the thorns, Becky’s concern lies in striking a balance between her popularity and her desire to be a good person. She wanted to forge her own path but her personal crossroad was exacerbated by an unexpected inheritance she received from her Aunt Shirley. The third born, Perry, was his sister’s antithesis. With his high intelligent quotient, he was viewed as dependable, hence, he was often overlooked by his parents. Unlike his popular sister, Perry was some sort of a social recluse which resulted in his involvement in illicit activities. Skirting disaster, his actions risk pushing the family to the brink of bankruptcy.

“Ordinarily he loved the glow of commerce on a dark winter afternoon. Almost every store contained things he wanted, and in this season every lamppost was wound with pine boughs and topped with a red bow that spoke additionally of buying, of receiving, of things brand-new and useful to him. But now, although he didn’t quite have the feeling itself yet, he remembered how it would feel to be unmoved by the stores, unwanting of anything in them, and how much dimmer the lights of commerce would seem to him then, how dead the pine boughs on the lampposts.”

~ Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads

Crossroads is a character-driven story. Related through multiple first-person point-of-views, Franzen made the readers inhabit the minds of the Hildebrandt family. Franzen has created complex and multilayered characters, characters whose actions often do not meet their good intentions. In Russ, we see an insecure man. On the surface, he was a righteous person, playing his role as a pastor to the tee. He depicted himself as a progressive person but his regressive actions belie this. Already in his forty’s, he also can’t escape the nagging feeling that he was already past his prime, which, in a way, fueled his desire for the widowed parishioner. He was also filled with distasteful thoughts about his family, so much so that he had no scruples shifting the blame to his wife for the failure of their marriage. He was on verge of a moral collapse and struggled with finding his authentic self. Members of the family would all find themselves at this very same crossroads of morality.

Marion, on the other hand, seemed to be an equally weak character. She was introduced as an overweight, matronly, and servile wife, a proverbial wallflower. As she took her role as a mother seriously, she started taking less interest in keeping up her physical attributes: “her sorry hair, her unavailing makeup, her seemingly self-spiting choice of dress.” As layers of Marion’s life were slowly revealed, we read about a character who has gone through a lot in before finally finding her own stability; inner peace was achieved when her world seemed to be on the verge of collapse once again. While each member of the family was psychologically complex, Marion was singly the most memorable and interesting. Her reckoning with her own crossroad, her letting out the inner fury she held back for years, was one of the novel’s most moving sequences. Each member had his or her own reckoning point but it was Marion who would seize the narrative and hold the story together.

Crossroads, however, does not reduce itself to a mere character study or a study of family dynamics. Interspersed into the story of the Hildebrandt family were seminal subjects and themes. It was brimming with religious themes, with the family itself a microcosm of religion and religious ideologies. The family was an ecosystem that has its own forms of salvation and choices for recantation. In scaling it down to the smallest unit of society, the novel’s religious theme was not overbearing, rather, it was explored through compassionate lenses. The novel also grappled with dark subjects such as domestic abuse, rape, addiction, and even abortion. However, one of its most extensive discourses revolved around mental health, especially in a period when seeking therapy was frowned upon and mental health awareness, overall, was a subject of taboo. Elsewhere, the novel tackled sexuality and sexual awakening, teenage angst and romance, and racial tensions.

This lush tapestry was juxtaposed with a rich historical backdrop. The 1970s in the United States were eventful, with several cultural and religious movements redefining the decade. One of the historical events that defined and characterized the period was the Vietnam War. In a final act to distinguish himself from his father, Clem enlisted for the war despite initially getting a deferment. This act of rebellion earned Clem his pacifist and anti-war father’s displeasure. This gave the novel a touch of politics, an element that is a staple in American literature. On the other hand, Becky grappled with a defining movement of the period. In coming across a potential boyfriend in Tanner, she inevitably crossed paths with the counterculture movement. She had personal accounts of the movement’s fixation on sex, drugs, and even rock ’n’ roll. Save its historical contexts, the vastness of the subjects the novel covered made it resonate with the contemporary.

“My question is whether we can ever escape our selfishness. Even if you bring in God, and make him the measure of goodness, the person who worships and obeys Him still wants something for himself. He enjoys the feeling of being righteous, or he wants eternal life, or what have you. If you’re smart enough to think about it, there’s always some selfish angle.”

~ Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads

Despite grappling with complex, dark, and bleak subjects, the story of the Hildebrandt family is illuminated with glimmers of hope. Each of the characters had their own coming-of-age and eureka moments. Their redemption arcs made for a heartwarming read. Such is the complexity of family life, especially one that has, over time, developed into one of convenience. Franzen did a commendable job of creating a cast of interesting and realistic characters, albeit deeply flawed. The novel’s fine elements were all woven together by Franzen’s storytelling. He made a seemingly simple story come to life with accessible prose. The way he made his readers inhabit the minds of his characters was scintillating. He covered a lot of complex subjects and themes but by keeping it in the ambit of the family, he kept the story relatable.

Crossroads is the first book of what is projected to be a trilogy to be called A Key to All Mythologies. Franzen created an eclectic set of flawed but interesting characters. Equally fascinating was his talent for making the readers inhabit the minds of his characters, making up for an intimate reading experience. Crossroads, in its exploration of family dynamics, was the archetype of Franzen’s oeuvre. The exploration of the individual touched on humanity, morality, and, to some extent, hypocrisy. But the story zoomed out beyond the individual and covered several concerns that were attuned to the contemporary. On a grander scale, the novel dealt with a vast territory that covered mental health, conservatism, radicalism, religion, cultural movements, anti-war sentiments, and social activism. This wealth of subjects gave the story its own unique complexion. The quintessence of the American novel, Crossroads was, overall, a trailblazing start to the trilogy.

Rating

77%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

In the ambit of American literature, Jonathan Franzen is a name that I kept on encountering. Some of his works were also listed as among the must-read books. This was enough to convince me to obtain a copy of two of his most popular works: The Corrections and Freedom. It was the latter that I first read, back in 2019. I was looking forward to the experience but, overall, I was underwhelmed. It was enough to keep me off of his work for quite some time. When I learned early this year that he released a new work last year, I shrugged it off. However, after encountering several glowing reviews of Crossroads, some even calling it one of the best works of the year, I finally relented. Like Freedom, the story revolved around a family on the brink of collapse, something I later on learned was a seminal part of Franzen’s literary blueprint. What I did not expect was that I would be invested in the story of the Hildebrandt family. It had various elements and details that made them more accessible. They were complex and individually interesting. Overall, Crossroads redeemed Franzen, which makes me look forward to his most critically-acclaimed work, The Corrections.

Book Specs

Author: Jonathan Franzen
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 580
Genre: Literary, Historical

Synopsis

It’s December 23, 1971, and heavy weather is forecast for Chicago. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, is on the brink of breaking free of a marriage he finds joyless – unless his wife, Marion, who has her own secret life, beats him to it. Their eldest child, Clem, is coming home from college on fire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem’s sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, has sharply veered into the counterculture, while their brilliant younger brother Perry, who’s been selling drugs to seventh graders, has resolved to be a better person. Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate.

Jonathan Franzen’s novels are celebrated for their unforgettably vivid characters and for their keen-eyed take on contemporary America. Now, in Crossroads, Franzen ventures back into the past and explores the history of two generations. With characteristic humor and complexity, and with even greater warmth, he conjures a world that resonates powerfully with our own.

A tour de force of interwoven perspectives and sustained suspense, its action largely unfolding on a single winter day, Crossroads is the story of a Midwestern family at a pivotal moment of moral crisis. Jonathan Franzen’s gift for melding the small picture and the big picture has never been more dazzlingly evident.

About the Author

To learn more about the American writer, click here.