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Reassuringly familiar

In Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen we’re back in familiar Franzen-territory: the dissection of an all American family. After his more expansive (geographically and thematically) and, in my opinion, less successful Purity, Crossroads feels reassuringly familiar. This is both a blessing, he does it extremely well, but also begs the question: is Franzen a one-trick pony?

This time, we’re a fly on the wall in the Hildebrandt family, a mid-western family of six, all of whom are facing some sort of identity crisis, hence the title. The father of the family and leader of the First Reformed Church pastor Russ Hildebrandt is about to be dethroned by Rick Ambrose, the infinitely cooler leader of the church’s youth group, Crossroads. Franzen is superb at cringeworthy dialogue and embarrassing situations; the Russ-Rick stand-off had me in stitches.

Russ is chasing skirt (it’s in the blurb so no spoiler) in the form of the newly widowed, sexy, flirty Frances Cottrell. Observing it all from the sideline is Russ’ wife Marion who is going through a bit of a re-evaluation herself. Behind her frumpy dresses and sagging middle-age body are secret desires and a tragic story that’s never been told.

Then there are the four kids: Becky, the best looking girl at school, whose unkissed status is about to be changed by the rock-band-playing, bad-boy Tanner Evans; her academically over-achieving brother Clem, who himself is making some drastic choices; Percy, the brilliant mind of the family, who’s about to graduate from intensive pot smoking to stronger stuff and finally, nine-year old Judson, who’s slowly being introduced to the realities of adult life.

The novel is set in the 1970, a time of cultural crossroads, which Franzen portrays well. The Vietnam War is rumbling on in the background, religious worship and sexual mores are changing.

There’s no doubt that Franzen is an outstanding writer. We feel present in his books because of the meticulously described places, utterly convincing dialogues and psychological insights into the characters. We feel what they feel. In fact, sometimes reading a Franzen book almost seems like watching a film.

At times, Crossroads is very, very funny; at other times it felt a bit of a chore to read, perhaps because of it’s length. I remember be blown away by the novelty of Freedom when I first read it. Would I have loved this as much if it was my first Franzen? Maybe. Perhaps it’s just that the novelty of Franzen’s writing has worn off – at least for me. There’s nothing wrong with Crossroads, it’s more a question of how many Franzen tomes you want to read.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen is published by Fourth Estate, 592 pages.

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