The first installment of a new trilogy from the National Book Award-winning author of The Corrections and Freedom. Crossroads is a family saga set in a Chicago suburb in the early 1970s, where each of the dysfunctional Hildebrandts (led by associate pastor/patriarch-in-turmoil, Russ) is experiencing a seismic identity crisis.
Giving up, for now, in Crossroads, on representing present youth, Franzen has doubled down on representing the white ones’ parents and grandparents as the impressionable, inquisitive, and dynamically flawed young men and women that they once had been. In dreams, as a once-famed tale from the Depression had it, begin responsibilities ... To set a novel half a century in the past, as he now does, is something like dealing oneself a full house. In playing to his strengths so inordinately he has unlocked a new, late style, distinct from the well-hewn blocks of prose poetry typical of his first three novels or the mashed-potatoes-and-gravy consistency of his last two. The Corrections was a masterpiece, but Crossroads is his finest novel yet. Unpolished and unsloppy, difficult to quote or fault, his free indirect style sticks to the contours of consciousness and attempts not one thing else. In a quiet and uncanny fashion it is entirely adequate: a prosaic causeway coursing through the swamp at night ... Though no serious fiction writer would impose their own belief upon their readers, what Crossroads does make clear is that Franzen, through his characters, has rendered it impossible for readers not to be engaged by the most momentous questions of faith ... His ambition in this novel is not only to mirror society, but to return the individual reader to themselves, to grind a lens in which the major questions structuring our single lives on Earth retain their focus and integrity. All of this sounds Dostoyevskian because (with the requisite adaptation for American environs) it is ... Crossroads is Franzen’s greatest and most perfect novel to date, but more importantly, it is his most promising: an inexhaustible resource for future novels, and not only his own. What impresses most is the sense that its successors, hopefully present soon, will all but certainly exceed it.
... a mellow, marzipan-hued ’70s-era heartbreaker. Crossroads is warmer than anything he’s yet written, wider in its human sympathies, weightier of image and intellect. If I missed some of the acid of his earlier novels, well, this one has powerful compensations ... Franzen patiently clears space for the slow rise and fall of character, for the chiming of his themes and for a freight of events — a car wreck, rape, suicide attempts, adultery, drug deals, arson — that arrive only slowly, as if revealed in sunlight creeping steadily across a lawn ... Franzen threads these stories, and their tributaries, so adeptly and so calmly that at moments he can seem to be on high-altitude, nearly Updikean autopilot. The character who cracks this novel fully open — she’s one of the glorious characters in recent American fiction — is Marion, Russ’s wife ... The Franzen-shaped hole in our reading lives is like a bog that floods at roughly eight-year intervals. This time that bog is shot through with intimations of light ... Flannery O’Connor spoke of the 'moment of grace' that appears in many of her stories, 'a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.' Franzen’s novel is flush with such moments. It’s about tests most of us fear we are not going to pass.
In examining the attitudes of 50 years ago, in the knowledge of how they turned out, Franzen never forgets, sentence by sentence, that the novel is a comic form. He invites his readers both to sympathise with each of the family’s private passions, their frustrated desire to be loved, their troubled relations with their gods, while having enormous fun observing the folly of their romantic delusions, the lies they tell themselves about love. This is, you realise, just about the perfect year in which to set that tragicomedy, full of I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony and everyone is beautiful earnestness ...It is a testament to Franzen’s authorial habits of empathy, his curiosity about the lives of others, his efforts in a land of cliche to add twists to easy assumptions, that you are likely to find yourself caring about how things turn out for each of the Hildebrandts equally ... As a group, they are the most sympathetic of Franzen’s creations since the Lambert family of The Corrections and, as with that novel, their local tribulations speak with wit and eloquence to the fatal flaw of American society: the question of how a culture of extreme individualism equates to the ties of guilt and convention and love that bind us to family and community. The answers in 1971 are no easier than those of half a century later.