It’s 23rd December 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.
First my thanks to the publisher and Tandem Collective for my finished copy of the book and organising the readalong which prompted me to pick up my first Jonathan Franzen novel – Crossroads. Published this week, this is a mighty tome, coming in at just short of 600 pages. Telling the story of the Hildebrants, we are introduced to the family individually in the first section of the book ( the first couple of hundred pages)! The book then continues to unfold as the stories emerge, told from different perspectives of the family, the reader is offered a broader insight by these varied views.
Personally I was a big fan of this book, I do like a big read and this family drama, set in the 70s is a study of a family imploding. Each person has their secrets, beginning with Marion and Russ, bored and frustrated in their marriage we learn their histories, their motivations. Living in the small town of New Prospect the community centers around the church youth group, named Crossroads. With the exception of Marion and youngest child Judson, all are connected to the youth group and its charismatic leader Ambrose.
There was a lot going on in this story and at times the writing was best described as dense, long chapters meant at times my attention waned and while the writing was eloquent this one did require attention so not one to read when falling asleep! Character driven, this is most definitely a family drama and I believe it is the first in a trilogy – with an open ended finish, I am certainly keen to know what comes next for the Hildebrants. Flawed and largely unlikeable characters, their stories intrigued me. The telling was non chronological with chapters dedicated to different characters. I liked this way of writing, but because of the level of detail on a couple of occasions I did wonder if I had missed something, only for it to be revealed later.
The detail in this book was impressive and there were others in the story that I wanted to know more about, focusing on this family of five gave the reader the sense of being immersed in the community, the supporting cast became familiar, particularly a few key peripheral players. The sense of unravelling was key and there were a number of directions the author could have authentically taken the story.
Definitely a book I have enjoyed and would certainly recommend for fans of immersive family drama. Not the easiest to review but hopefully I have managed to give you at least a hint of what this book is about. Long yes, but accessible and largely readable and easy to follow. Part coming of age, with themes of mental illness, addiction, infidelity and family, I hope there is more to come from the Hilderbrandts but certainly, for me, Franzen is an author I want to read more of.
About the Author
Jonathan Franzen is the author of five novels, including The Corrections, Freedom and Purity, and six works of nonfiction, most recently The End of the End of the Earth and What if We Stopped Pretending? He lives in Santa Cruz, California.