The story opens just before Christmas 1971 and centers on the Hildebrandt family, who live in the “Crappier Parsonage” in New Prospect, a suburb of Chicago. The head of the family, Reverend Russ Hildebrandt, a middle-aged associate pastor, is frustrated that his career has stalled, humiliated that a young, hip minister has snatched away control of the church’s youth group that he founded, tired of his wife and marriage, and enamored of a widowed parishioner.
The youth group is called Crossroads, and it’s just one of the many crossroads the family arrives at throughout this big, ambitious novel. The good reverend’s wife, Marion, is well aware of Russ’ infatuations and is filled with anger and self-loathing. Their daughter, Becky, the coolest girl in high school, becomes suddenly unmoored. Their middle son, Perry, is super smart and contemptuous of others; he’s also one of the biggest pot dealers in school. Eldest son Clem, the epitome of responsibility, is on his way home from college and seeking a reckoning with the father he has so long admired.
In some ways this family’s internal conflicts seem fairly typical. But as the novel progresses, we discover there are deeper histories at work. Some have to do with the basic assumptions of marriage and family life, while others reflect the tumult of the 1970s, when much of society was divided about America’s participation in the Vietnam War and young people especially struggled with issues of equality and justice for people of color and Native Americans. It is also no coincidence that the major sections of the novel are titled “Advent” and “Easter.” Each individual Hildebrandt grapples with matters of Christian faith and its place in their lives.
Franzen writes about all of this with penetrating insight delivered through incisive sentences. By turns funny and terrifying, Crossroads is promised to be the first novel in a planned trilogy. I can’t wait to read what happens next.