The title of Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel is very apt–all the characters are at crossroads in their lives and every chapter ends with another messy situation so the reader is repeatedly reminded of the title. In some cases, a character is literally at a crossing in the road at the end of a chapter. The story is told by five members of the Hildebrandt family, and it’s set in the early 1970s in a suburb of Chicago.
The Hildebrandts are a hot mess. The father, Russ, is the assistant minister in a local congregation. By a vote of the teens he was kicked out of Crossroads, the touchy-feely teen group run by a charismatic student minister. Ah, the 70s. Russ is out of touch and the teens find him a little creepy. (This includes two of his own kids.) He’s devastated, questioning his calling and his parental skills. He feels much better after he begins an affair with a parishioner. Wife Marion, a brilliantly written character, has a gritty back story that she’s kept secret from everyone, but like many big secrets, it’s the black cloud over her life. She lives in fear for her soul.
The children have their own travails. They form alliances, betray confidences, try out risky behavior and generally behave like teenagers trying to navigate to adulthood. But this is not just a domestic novel about suburban angst. It’s a momentous novel about religious faith and what we owe the people in our lives. Every Hildebrandt, except maybe the eight-year old, pines for goodness but misses the boat. They yearn for their faith to show them the road, for the right to live selfishly without guilt, for guidance in making life-changing decisions. So much delicious angst is contained in these pages, so much schadenfreude, such an overstuffed novel.
I enjoyed it immensely! Lots to think about and a good winter read.