Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Gosh, this is a large book in every sense. Five hundred and eighty pages where I didn’t really get what I was reading. For me, this is one of those books where you need to find out more about the author and what he said about the book to make a greater sense.

What I did understand is the title Crossroads and how it applies to the main characters in the story and even to the time it is set. This is 1971 and 1973 with the coming end of the Vietnam war and the crossroads this has proved to be for America.

The book is a family saga about the Hildebrandts, all of whom come to a crossroads, sometimes more than one, and the impact this has on the rest of the family as they all fall apart. I really loved the backstory/novellas of the parents; Marion and Russ. These are revealed in different ways; Marion’s through visits to a psychiatrist. These help make sense of the adults they become and why they do what they do. I really enjoyed Marion and her finding her voice and body but remained deeply irritated by Russ and what seemed to me childish pious behavior and misbehavior.

What I didn’t understand in the book is the religious element, perhaps because I am not that familiar with American life during that time in history. Here, faith or lack of it is the glue that holds the book together and I think is about being a better person. Russ came from a Mennonite background where there is adult baptism, and where church organisation, military service are rejected – something that must have been very relevant to the times. Russ is an assistant pastor in a church with a large youth group, called Crossroads, but does not serve in the war although in a rejection of his parents, their eldest son does try to enlist. Quite a crossroads there.

Because the book is divided into two sections advent and Easter, I was expecting more resurrection in the Easter section rather than just the resurrection of Russ and Marion’s marriage. If anything, family life falls apart even more and has quite a menacing end.

I have never really understood what the obsession with being a better person is. Why isn’t it good enough to be yourself? Why do you need to live your best life? It implies there is a life that you could lead that is not your best. How do you know which life you are in? What if you spent all your time trying to be in the better life and lost site of the present and just being there?

This is book one of what will be a series of three books which will span the generations. I could see several ways which the follow-on book might take. Towards the end of the book Becky, the daughter, has her own daughter and rejects her parents and her brothers. The next book could follow the idea of the sins of the family being passed down. Towards the end before Clem leaves the Andes there is a moment when he notices that where the trees had been cut down for wood the land seemed more waterlogged and eroded so maybe one of the books will take on the idea of eco destruction and activism.

The three stars I have given this book are because I don’t fully understand it rather than thinking it not very good. This would make it a good book for book club but it is too long. Maybe the follow up books will help with understanding it more.

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