REVIEW: Jonathan Franzen Releases “Crossroads”

Acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen recently released his latest novel, Crossroads and is also presenting an accompanying virtual book tour in partnership with local bookstores around the country. Last Thursday, local bookstores around the midwest including Ann Arbor’s Literati Books co-hosted an online book tour event where Franzen read excerpts from Crossroads and discussed the book in conversation with Kathy Wang, author of the novels Impostor Syndrome and Family Trust.

The concept of an “online” version of the classic local bookstore book tour is a bit odd at first glance, but it proved to be a rewarding substitute for the pre-covid format. The event began with Franzen reading an excerpt from Crossroads. The novel itself focuses primarily on a single family over the course of a single day around Christmastime in the 1970s. To open, he chose a segment which at times felt deliberately uncomfortable, dealing with complex issues of religion, maternal roles and responsibilities, and the concept of the “ideal body” and dieting for women in the 1970s (when the novel is set). The prose isn’t terribly complex, but the associated emotion in the excerpt is compelling and palpable.

The excerpt serves as a springboard for Franzen and Wang to discuss just how this book and its characters came to be. Franzen chooses to inhabit the consciousness of each family member, a decision that arrived slowly over the course of the creation of the novel. He discusses how originally he thought the matriarch, Marion, would be “just a mom”—a character without much depth or her own perspective. Yet she grew so much during the three years of the book’s gestation that she ultimately became a character so important that the multi-paragraph opening excerpt was focused entirely on her and her internal conflict.

Not only did Marion change throughout the novel’s creation, but Franzen and Wang also discuss how Franzen’s attitude towards his characters has changed with time, over the course of his previous novels up until now. Franzen admits that he’s not trying to be “kinder to his characters”, although in his eyes, he sees that as a potential loss of comedy. The inextricable partnership of anger and comedy is something I had never seriously considered before, but Franzen and Wang put it into sharp perspective. They discuss how, in Franzen’s eyes, it’s impossible to have comedy without also having anger, and how his choice to treat his characters in Crossroads with greater kindness—although never forgoing honesty—may have sacrificed some comedy in the interest of having deeper, truer characters.

The “peek behind the curtain” about the creation of Crossroads and Franzen’s literary process only increased my excitement about reading the novel. If you’re a fan of Franzen or just generally interested in reading the novel, I would recommend attending a book tour date! The tour is virtual and future tour dates can be viewed here: 

Stay tuned for an upcoming review of the full novel!

Abigail Fox

Abigail is a chemistry and computer science major and a proud plant parent.

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