It’s absolutely wonderful to lose yourself in a great novel that you trust completely. Franzen has created a family of six: father Russ, a pastor from a Mennonite background; wife Marion from a Jewish Catholic background and their four kids: Clem, Becky, Perry and sunny Judson. The time is the seventies. The place is a country town near Chicago. At their church, Russ is the assistant minister. He has given up control of the youth group Crossroads to Rick Ambrose in trying circumstances. He’s attracted to a foxy new congregant, Frances. Clem and Becky are super-close, but their camaraderie shifts when he goes to college and gets a girlfriend, under whose influence he decides to turn himself over to the draft board for Vietnam. Perry is super intelligent, emotional, off-putting to his father and into drugs. Marion, once the talented sprite over whom Russ marvelled is now dumpy and careworn. She comes into much sharper view later on when her horrifying backstory is revealed.
Chapter by chapter, the story of family developments is carried forward by concentrating on one character at a time. Franzen builds a complex, layered view of each psyche and how much each person knows and understands the others which frankly, is gob-smacking in its brilliance. Our sympathies wax and wane for each of them as the annual Crossroads trip to help out in Navaho country approaches and Russ does all he can to seal his fate with Frances. Once there, there’s a disaster that has far reaching consequences and by the end of the novel you wonder what’s in store for this fractured family. Luckily, this is the first of a trilogy. This would be an excellent novel for a non-Christian to read to understand how Christianity has formed the culture of the US. It’s very worthy, except when it’s not. This is one of those books that make you dubious about picking up the next book on your pile (or tablet) because no doubt, the next book will not be as good.