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.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (Historical Fiction)

A slow-paced, deeply interior book about love, marriage, and faith. It follows a linear progression through the lives of four individuals, two marriages, and a forty-year shared ministry.

The real center of the book is the place of God in people’s lives. Each character has his or her own relationship (or lack thereof) with God: Charles knows absolutely that there is a God and that he has a calling to the ministry; his wife Lily is equally certain that there is no God and has no affinity with the tasks expected of a minister’s wife, preferring an academic life. Nan is a minister’s daughter and has never questioned her faith; James is not religious and has doubts about God, but feels the ministry would be a good platform for his drive towards social justice.

As each character grows into his or her life and faces difficulties both large and small, God is at the center of many thoughts and actions and is present on most pages. This was surprisingly non-repetitious, and the arguments, discussions, reflections, and historical references were balanced and intriguing, even to someone like myself who has no interest in religion.

The characters are all very earnest — even in their doubt and questioning, there is no cynicism (or any humor which I’m now realizing is often predicated on cynicism). It was somewhat refreshing and made me realize how very cynical the world feels today and how it wasn’t always that way.

The prose is beautiful, though at times over wrought. It is a philosophical and reflective look at life and marriage and documents the details of a healthy approach to personal growth — listening, discussing, reflecting, and resolution.

I was initially quite put off by the number of references to God and faith — it really isn’t my thing — but I found myself quite taken by the four individuals and their personal quests for understanding and a fulfilling life. I learned quite a bit more than I expected.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 13th, 2019.