By Jonathan Franzen
580 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.

There are some crossroads we arrive at and immediately recognize.

Should you go to college? If so, where?

Should you marry that person?

Should you take this job or that one?

Should you buy a house and “settle down”?

Should you start a family?

Because of the much-discussed magnanimity of those decisions, we tend to identify them as crossroads when we come to them. Nevertheless, in these moments we still tend to deny the long-lasting influence such decisions will have because, subconsciously, we realize that recognizing their significance and ruminating on them accordingly will only cause us to be paralyzed with indecision.

But, fortunately for our nervous systems, though perhaps unfortunately for our greater happiness, we usually sail right through most crossroads in our life completely blind.

We travel through life going so recklessly fast in such increasingly foggy weather conditions that, by the time the fog dissipates and we can recognize where we are and how we got there, we’ve usually gone so far that there are no longer any roads leading us back to where we now realize we’d rather be.

“Crossroads” is set in the early 1970s and told from the perspective of five members of the Hildebrandt family, all of whom are on the cusp of making decisions that will significantly impact their lives. But the name “Crossroads” is more than symbolic — it’s also the name of a Chicago-area church youth group that figures prominently.

The way “Crossroads” puts you in the head of its five characters reminded me at times of one of those extraordinary HBO shows — “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” or, currently, “Succession.” You get to know these characters so well that they seem at times indistinguishable from people in your own life, indistinguishable from yourself. I felt my allegiances being roughly pulled five different ways while reading until, at some point near the end, the line snapped and I found myself on one side.

These characters are gloriously, wretchedly human, and I loved and hated them as a result. They aren’t better or worse than any of us, they are us. Occasional misanthrope that I am, that the pandemic and Trump have had a hand in making me into, I found myself propelled through the novel not by feelings of love for the characters, but feelings of intense dislike, if not quite loathing.

Recognizing the all-too-familiar failings of humanity, of family, really grates, at times unpleasantly so. I don’t see that as a failing, though, because whether I loved or loathed these characters, and these feelings alternated as I read, I always felt particularly passionate about them.

I’d never read Jonathan Franzen before but having been completely absorbed by this Midwestern American epic the past two weeks, I finally see what all the fuss is about. This is immaculately crafted, and quite possibly one of the best contemporary American novels I’ve ever read. Since this is the first part of what is expected to be a trilogy, I’ll withhold final judgment until the final two books are released, but this is about as promising a first entry as one could have hoped for.

This is my first book of 2022 and unless this is a remarkably good year in books for me, I have a strong suspicion that “Crossroads” will top my list at the end of the year.

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