December 05

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

I have been doing book reviews for a little while now. OK, not as reliably as Ms K and not quite as well researched as the London Review of Books, but I hope I’ve earned enough credibility to call out a stand out book when I read one. And this one is a stand out.

Jonathan Franzen is the force behind The Corrections and Freedom (both mandatory titles on any pretentious bookshelf) and the contemporary author determined to explore society’s most complex and weighty issues through fiction (and piss off Oprah).

Crossroads is set in suburban Chicago in the early 1970s and centres around the Hildebrandt family – mother, father and their four children.  The father (Russ Hildebrandt) is a 47-year-old pastor at the local church and youth group (also called Crossroads) where a large part of the story takes place.  Each chapter is dedicated to a different Hildebrandt dealing with their own crisis of faith and morality, offering a priceless multi-generational mix of experience and perspective.

Standing at a chunky 600 pages, Crossroads is more than just book porn for your shelf. It is a slow burn of flawed, awkward, everyday characters navigating their way through life – wrapped up in effortless Franzen writing that makes you smile, wince and sigh (often all in the same page).

Of all the tensions in this story, my favourite is the relationship between Russ and his nemesis, the more popular youth group leader, Rick Ambrose.  “A hundred and twenty kids were in Crossroads, and only one exciting leader.” said Russ’ daughter, Becky.

Sadly, Russ isn’t doing too well on the relationship front either, as he tries to control his lust for foxy parishioner, Frances Cottrell.  At one point when Russ sees Frances talking to Rick, Franzen writes: “He was taking on dark water through large holes in his hull”. So good – I’m using that.

Crossroads is the first of a planned trilogy, which no doubt explains the detailed character development. I feel like I know the Hildebrandts so well that I could spot them on the street. Whether the trilogy eventuates or not, Crossroads is a stand-alone gem in its own right.  Assuming that Franzen delivers on his promise of the next two instalments, I will happily make space on my pretentious bookshelf.

And that is my 2 cents worth.