Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (Literary fiction / audio book)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

Russ Hildebrandt is the (unhappy, and frankly to me fairly unlikeable) associate pastor at a suburban Chicago church. Set in the early 70s, the story follows a year or two in the lives of Russ, his wife, and his three oldest children through their multiple perspectives — each in searing, fully introspective, sometimes cringeworthy but always honest detail. Each seeks to balance desires, morality, and a need to belong in the world into which they are born. Russ finds his marriage joyless and finds passion in thoughts of a young, divorced parishioner, his wife Marion has a terrible and secret history which fills her with shame, Clem struggles with the moral luxury of his Vietnam deferment, Becky finds God in the counter culture, and young Perry — an insufferable genius — tries to find ways to calm his brain.

It is a masterful undertaking with broad strokes painted through millions of tiny perceptions, struggles, self-doubts, and experiences. The culture of the time comes to life in this way as well — the interactions and expectations between men and women and the birth of Women’s Lib, the awakening of the counter culture which itself had many guises, Vietnam, and the approach to helping the “poor.” Very strong themes on faith, religion, and relationships with God, though I wouldn’t call this an overly religious book.

The writing was amazing. As I listened to this on audio, I was not able to capture any of the outstanding lines which frustrated me as there were many. On the other hand, listening to the book forced me to “read” it slowly so that I was able to savor the language in a way my normal reading speed does not allow. On the first hand, some of the sections inspired recoil. Sometimes it feels like its best to not know what really goes on inside a person’s head — especially a person prone to self-analysis and neuroses as these people all are. If I had been reading, rather than listening to, this book, I might have skimmed a little of this, though in truth I would have missed the experience of truly inhabiting a mind completely unlike my own — I’m sure that is good for me!

Apparently, this is the first of a multi-generational trilogy, which I did not know until after I finished it. This book provides closure on the story — no cliffhangers.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 5th, 2021.

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

When 10-year old Clover Blue witnesses his first live birth in his Northern California commune, he begins to wonder which of the sister-mothers he actually came from. But there is an odd hush around that subject, in this otherwise open, loving, and caring community.

Ranging from 1974 through 1978, the book follows Blue’s quest to understand who he really is. Blue is a wonderful character and the detailed depiction of communal life and those who chose it are inspiring. The author manages to paint a full picture of real people who have consciously formed a family in a spiritual environment and yet who have also made mistakes with serious impact. I love the balanced way she has shown what might happen in such circumstances — with an objective tone which simultaneously portrays the beauty of the people, their relationships, and their way of life as well as the struggles, frailty, and hypocrisies.

I loved reading this book — particularly for the characters and the fact that it embodied all the best things I remember from that era (Blue is four years younger than I was during the time period). The commune members have their own backstories and their relationships within the commune parallel the evolution of the commune itself. The story unfolds beautifully with ongoing reflection. The commune is clothing optional and the kids are home schooled — with each of the “Elders” imparting their own wisdom. The local library serves as a fantastic resource. The essay Blue is assigned to write about people watching TV is priceless (he has to go to the local clinic to observe this as there is no television at the commune). One of the Elders sums up all of the great religions with: “Great prophets like Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha pretty much said the same thing… Be kind. Respect life. Pay attention. And focus on the here and now, not the promise of something better in the afterlife.” So simple.

The start is a little slow — I initially found the writing a little clunky and almost stopped reading — but fairly soon I was completely caught up in the characters and their surroundings and forgot I was reading at all (my measure of a good book!).

Highly recommended!

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.