Book of the week: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen’s new book is an absorbing look at the ‘last, confused years of the Age of Aquarius’
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Jonathan Franzen has always written his best novels when he resists the urge to dissect America and goes back to “basics”: anatomising family life, said James Walton in The Daily Telegraph. He did this brilliantly in the “all-conquering” The Corrections (2001), and he has done so again in his equally superb sixth novel. Part one of a trilogy titled “A Key to All Mythologies” (a reference to Mr Casaubon’s “famously futile life’s work” in Middlemarch), Crossroads is set in the early 1970s, in the fictional Illinois town of New Prospect.
It centres on five members of the dysfunctional Hildebrandt family: Russ, a “liberal Christian pastor”; Marion, his downtrodden wife; college student Clem; and his teenage siblings Becky and Perry. “Moving from one character to another with unhurried efficiency, Franzen inhabits all of them with total conviction and a Middlemarch-like ability to know more about them than they know themselves.”
At the heart of the novel is a progressive youth group called “Crossroads”, which is presided over by a charismatic young pastor named Rick, said Thomas Mallon in The New York Times. Although it’s based at his church, Russ himself has been ejected from the group, having used “sexually frank” language while counselling a teenage girl.
Humiliatingly, however, his children still attend, though their motives for doing so aren’t especially pure: Becky is there because she fancies the guitarist; Perry sees an opportunity to deal drugs. In the background, larger issues loom – the Vietnam War, changing sexual mores – but these don’t unduly disrupt Franzen’s family saga. “Nicely textured”, and full of “nimble” dialogue, Crossroads is an absorbing look at the “last, confused years of the Age of Aquarius”.
Personally, I found it an uneven book, said Claire Lowdon in The Sunday Times. While the “granular characterisation” is predictably brilliant – Franzen is nothing if not the “bard of the backstory” – the plot is marred by a lack of momentum; then, late on, Franzen implausibly “brings all his characters to a big personal crisis at exactly the same moment”.
I disagree, said Xan Brooks in The Guardian: this book is a “pure pleasure to read” from start to finish. “One hopes that Franzen’s trilogy will stay the course, chasing the Hildebrandt family through the 1970s, past Watergate and the energy crisis, all the way to Ronald Reagan’s brash new American morning.”
4th Estate 580pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
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