To readers under a certain age, Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Crossroads will seem like it belongs in a bookstore’s fantasy section. As is typical of Franzen’s works, the book centers around Midwestern liberals. Unlike his other heroes, these characters do not escape flyover country to join an environmental nonprofit or open a trendy restaurant. The Hildebrandts live, work, breathe, eat, sleep—among other things—in and around a Protestant church. These are white liberal churchgoers, a demographic practically unheard of in America today. It is only by setting the book in the 1970s that the author is able to get the reader to suspend disbelief.
The Hildebrandts are not just cultural Christians, holding on by some common thread so that grandparents can enjoy baptisms and first communions. Their patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the pastor at First Reformed in the Chicago suburbs. In fact, both Russ and his wife are converts to that sect of Protestantism, each rejecting older Christian traditions for varying reasons. Most shocking to modern readers is the vibrancy of the church’s youth group, called “Crossroads,” from which the book gets its title. In New Prospect, Illinois, Crossroads is the place to be on a weekend night, whether you are a wannabe do-gooder or a popular long-haired, pot-smoking musician.
In 2021, most young people who consider themselves part of the social justice movement would not be caught dead inside a house of worship. Churches are seen as oppressive institutions in service of the patriarchy, and their influence on society is not to be trusted. In Crossroads, Franzen shows how that was not always the case, while simultaneously painting a scene of the last gasp of the Christian Left in America. One of the primary tensions in the book is between Russ, who uses biblical teachings to inform his bleeding heart, and Ambrose, the leader of the youth group, who infuses his sermons with what might be called Moral Therapeutic Deism—heavy on the moral therapy, light on the deism.
It is no spoiler to say that Ambrose wins that battle, a victory foretold by how little a role God and Jesus play in a book ostensibly about a clergyman and his family. Characters are constantly trying to “do the right thing,” but the timeworn axiom “What Would Jesus Do” never factors into their calculus. When any of the Hildebrandts do petition Jesus, he or she is looking for license to break one of the Ten Commandments. One of the great perks of liberal Christianity is its lack of strict rules. Of course, it is that very thing that makes it ultimately inessential to human life.
Although at first glance Franzen’s least relevant book, Crossroads benefits from being his least preachy. By setting it in the past, he assumes the reader is already familiar with issues like the Vietnam War and the plight of Native Americans. This gives him more space to explore the motivations of each of the characters, and as a result they are more fleshed out than some of his earlier creations. Two decades after The Corrections, Franzen has yet to reach its literary heights once again. Although the Hildebrandts are generally more likable than the Lamberts (and infinitely more likable than the protagonists of Freedom and Purity), the time and place of Crossroads are just too distant to have the same cultural force. Still, this is a very enjoyable novel, and Jonathan Franzen continues to prove why his novel releases function as literary events.
Book Review: ‘The Final Girl Support Group’
Release Date: July 2021
Cozy up on your next snow day and read Gary Hendrix’s The Final Girl Support Group.
Author of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (2020), Grady Hendrix succeeds again in tapping into our favorite horror films to deliver this mystery. Six young women make up the “Final Girl Support Group.” Each survived horrific massacres that have been turned into successful film franchises. Movies such as Friday The 13th and Halloween actually happened in this version of America. Twenty years later the spotlight has moved on and society has found new monsters and victims. Still, these women sit in a circle of chairs in a church basement trying to figure out how to live their lives. Paranoid Lynnette Tarkington reluctantly participates in group therapy sessions with Dr. Carol Elliot along with fellow survivors Marilyn Torres, who has buried her emotions in wealth; Dani Shipman, who might have killed the wrong person; Julia Campbell, whose encounter left her in a wheelchair; and Heather DeLuca, who is succumbing to addiction. Some of them are in denial about what happened. Some still live in terror, always looking over their shoulders, imprisoned by their own fears.
After one member of this vigilant sisterhood is murdered and a series of persistent attacks threaten the rest, Lynnette becomes increasingly suspicious that the attacks are originating way too close to their inner circle. “Does this ever end?” Lynnette asks. “Will there always be someone out there turning little boys into monsters? Will we always be final girls? Will there always be monsters killing us? How do we stop the snake from eating its own tail?” The book is creepy enough on its face, but Hendrix’s use of narrative tools heightens the unease.
The Final Girl Support Group isn’t necessarily scary, but the plot is action-packed and delivers its share of gore. The novel is an ultimately entertaining and inspiring take on horror movies, trauma, and self-determination. Available on Amazon!
Book Review: ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’
I first read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo this past month after my friend and I swapped our favorite summer books. I opened the book one Saturday morning and couldn’t put it down. Despite the fact that it was published nearly five years ago, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo continues to captivate readers’ interest on BookTok, Bookstagram, and Goodreads.
This story is about renowned Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo who, after decades of blockbuster hits, is now 79 and ready to give an exclusive interview after years of dodging the press. But the only one granted access is a little-known journalist named Monique Grant. Though she can’t understand why she’s been chosen, Monique goes to Evelyn’s home and finds out Evelyn doesn’t just want to do an interview — she wants to lay out every piece of her truth for Monique to write and sell her biography.
Though Evelyn won’t answer why she picked Monique to do the job, Monique agrees and Evelyn’s story begins to unfold from her calculated beginnings in Hollywood to the millions she enjoys in the present, each section of her life titled by each of her seven husbands and her reasons for marrying (and divorcing) them. As you journey through Evelyn’s life, it feels as if you’re being granted exclusive access to something you shouldn’t be seeing. It’s hard to believe the characters and events in this book aren’t real celebrities.
To me, a great book is one that makes you forget you’re reading in the first place, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo does exactly that. It’s an instantly captivating book, thanks in part to the story, but mostly to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s writing. Her stories flow smoothly, her characters are complex and realistically flawed, and I happily got lost in the pages until the very end. This is the perfect cozy fall read!
Book Review: ‘Verity’ By Colleen Hoover
Colleen Hoover is all the rage this summer. The author’s 2016 romance novel It Ends With Us gained fame due to the viral nature of #BookTok (the book lover’s community on TikTok). I’ve always loved reading, especially during the summer months by the beach and pool. Surely because of this, my “For You Page” has been flooding with recommendations and reviews as to what to read next. I can without a doubt say that Verity is worth the hype.
Verity was first published in 2018 and has only just become available worldwide in paperback. I started reading Colleen Hoover last summer when I first discovered It Ends With Us on #BookTok and have read four of her other books since. Given that I finished this one in a day, I would say it is extremely readable!
Verity is different from Hoover’s usual style and genre of romance. This novel is twisting, unsettling, creepy, and psychologically mind-bending. From the beginning, I could not put it down. The plot follows protagonist, Lowen Ashleigh, a struggling writer who accepts a job offer to complete the remaining books of an unfinished, successful series. Jeremy Crawford, the husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen due to his wife’s serious injuries. Lowen arrives at the Crawford home, ready to sort through years of Verity’s notes and outlines, hoping to find enough material to get her started. What Lowen doesn’t expect to uncover is an unfinished autobiography Verity never intended for anyone to read. With shades of Gillian Flynn blending in with Hoover’s classic take on romance, our protagonist finds herself uncovering a story so horrifying, and all the while, falling for a grieving man. There is a thrilling twist at the end, which I am happy to debate, but I’m not giving any spoilers until you read it for yourself! Overall, I highly recommend the purchase. Find it on Amazon.