I am so very happy to report that Jonathan Franzen has outdone himself with his new and very ambitious novel. I loved it. I enjoyed reading every page. He’s set the story in the suburbs of Chicago. One of the main characters is actually a youth group. Yes, characters. The time frame is the 1970’s. I lived through this wild and crazy time. The atmosphere leaps from each page and brings back memories.
This story revolves around a family of six: mom and dad and their four children. The Reverend Russ Hildebrandt is an assistant pastor of a Protestant church. He’s recently fallen from grace and been banned from the church’s youth group called Crossroads. He’s filled with hatred for the young and very hip Rich Ambrose who has taken over the leadership of the group. The kids all love Rich and so Russ avoids Rich at all costs. This hatred has metastasized until now it’s gotten to the point where he’s taking it out on his family, especially his wife.
Marion is Russ’s wife who has gone from being a pert little sex pot to a dumpy and very plain housewife. Russ is utterly bored to death with her and even embarrassed by her. But she does not deserve what is happening. Russ is dancing circles around a younger widow who is showing interest in both him and the church.
Becky is Marion and Russ’s only daughter. She’s pure and smart and extremely popular. When the story begins she’s just finding God and about to get involved in the youth group much to her father’s dismay.
Perry is a tortured soul to say the least. He is the middle son, the one most like his mother although he does not know this yet. He’s a mess. He’s not only using drugs, he’s selling them. His story is riddled with wildness and sorrow.
Clem is the oldest child. He ends up leaving town and getting involved with an older woman who he falls in love with and has unbelievable sex. It all is too much for Clem who was, at one time, against the Viet Nam war. But that changes too.
There is a third and much younger son but he has a very modest part in this the first of a trilogy. I expect Franzen to flesh his character out fully in future tomes.
All the characters are dealing with deep issues of faith, sin, shame, and even love. When I read Marion’s background I was shocked. A minister’s daughter, her mother all but disappeared early in her life. Marion is the strongest character in this book and her story is probably the most interesting. She reveals things about herself that help us understand why Perry is like he is. And why she worries so for him.
Clem agonizes over the Viet Nam war. And his faith. And feels terrible guilt about his decisions. But he loses himself so totally in the body of his first love that we must wonder how he will come back.
Franzen is at his best when using sarcasm to move dialogue along. He is also great at dialogue, period. One of the masters. He hasn’t missed a beat in bringing us into this time period either. I remember well the temperature of the country during the years of the Viet Nam war. Tempers were hot. People were mad. Everyone had an opinion.
Church is a big part of this novel but, it’s not a “churchy” novel. Does that make sense? It will once you get into it. It’s witty and smart and filled with great secondary characters that stand out and make the story so darn readable.
There are several very long books out right now by important authors. Most of them are either difficult or just plain avoidable. Like Ron Charles said, thank God for Jonathan Franzen.
I am so looking forward to reading the next two installments of this trilogy. These are characters that stick with you.
My finished copy of CROSSROADS came from the great publishing company of Farrar, Straus and Giroux in exchange for an honest review. Honestly, I loved it!!