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Jonathan Franzen

Set in a historical moment of moral crisis, Crossroads - the first instalment of the trilogy A Key to All Mythologies - is the stunning foundation of a sweeping investigation of human mythologies, as the Hildebrandt family navigate the political and social crosscurrents of of the past fifty years.

It’s December 23, 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.

Jonathan Franzen’s novels are celebrated for their unforgettably vivid characters and their keen-eyed take on the complexities of contemporary America. Now, for the first time, in Crossroads, Franzen explores the history of a generation. With characteristic humour and complexity, and with even greater warmth, he conjures a world that feels no less immediate.

A tour de force of interwoven perspectives and sustained suspense, Crossroads is the story of a Midwestern family at a historical moment of moral crisis, spanning a whole century, casting light forward to our present day. Jonathan Franzen’s gift for melding the small picture and the big picture has never been more dazzlingly evident.


Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Crossroads, abandons the overt political messaging of Freedom and the narrative globetrotting of Purity, returning instead to the neurotic dramas of the Midwestern family unit. Franzen’s strength has always been in creating characters whose capacity for self-deception and pity slowly leaches into the lives of those around them, with the narrative building around these intertwining arcs. As with his breakout novel The Corrections, Crossroads sees Franzen playing to these strengths.

Crossroads begins in suburban Chicago in 1971, with each member of the Hildebrandt family dealing with a private crisis. Russ, the patriarch, interprets the world through the cloying altruism of his work as an associate pastor, a perspective through which he can rationalise just about anything, including intense romantic desire for one of his parishioners. Marion, his wife, has a complicated relationship with Catholicism; when her faith fails to explain the traumas of her past, she shamefully turns to a psychologist for succour. Their eldest, Clem, rips up his Vietnam draft exemption to spite his pacifist father. Perry, their brilliant but duplicitous middle child, is busted for dealing pot, after which he also turns to faith, in a church youth group that has all the local teens abuzz. But in his quest for goodness, Perry can’t shake the question: ‘How do I know if I’m really being good or if I’m just pursuing sinful advantage?’

In one way or another, this is the question that animates the internal lives of each the Hildebrandts. With the free-loving hedonism of the late 1960s slowly encroaching on the suburbs – confusing matters of faith further – it’s a moral conundrum that remains unsolved. The first in a planned trilogy that will continue up to the present day, Crossroads is Franzen’s most straightforward and earnest novel since The Corrections, and it ranks just behind that career highlight in my estimation.

Michael Skinner is a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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