Days before Christmas 1971, long-ignored pressures seethe within the Hildebrandt family, whose patriarch, Russ, is associate pastor of a suburban Chicago church. His eldest child, a college freshman, feels guilty for the student draft deferment that keeps him out of Vietnam. The only daughter, the high school queen bee, plots her social diplomacy with Machiavellian savvy; maybe she’ll surprise everyone and turn counterculture. The next youngest, a boy brilliant beyond his years but addicted to pot, shows contempt for lesser beings. Russ, feeling fettered in his marriage, cozies up to a pretty parishioner, unaware that his wife dreams of running away.
The common thread among these Hildebrandts? Each is utterly neurotic about sex, if in different ways. That leaves the youngest boy, who’s ten, as the only placid family member.
The first of a planned trilogy, Crossroads offers Franzen’s trademark prose—garrulous, insightful, often humorous. He delves into the characters’ search for God, including Russ’s arresting notion that the early Christians would have found much to like about the 1970s counterculture. The atmosphere of protest and social conscience rings true without being preachy. And I enjoyed Franzen’s spot-on portrayal of sensitivity groups, which brought back memories.
However, Crossroads is difficult to read, in that way disappointingly unlike his much-celebrated novel, The Corrections. The Hildebrandts are an off-putting bunch, manipulative and controlling, and it’s hard to sympathize, especially with Russ, his stubbornly unreflective wife, or their insufferably intelligent son. The narrative drags emotionally, despite the never-ending domestic drama. And Franzen’s attempts to redeem his characters don’t persuade me, either because they sound false or come too late.
As a literary evocation of the early 1970s, Crossroads feels true to the time. Yet the novel falls short, I’m sorry to say, and from one of America’s finest writers, I hoped for better.