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The Real Housewives of Jonathan Franzen

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos Getty Images

Shortly before confessing the details of her turbulent past to her therapist, Marion Hildebrandt, the matron of the family around which Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads revolves, spends precious minutes of her session in silence. She wants, for once, “to be the person who was withholding, not the wife and mother being withheld from.” Marion is a woman full of secrets, safeguarded during more than 20 years of lukewarm marriage with four children. She is a big character with an inexhaustibly deep emotional well and small sensibilities. In other words, she is a housewife.

As I made my way through Franzen’s oeuvre, I kept encountering them: in Freedom, housewife Patty Berglund, with her inferiority problem; in The Corrections, housewife Enid Lambert, with her impossible aspirations. Franzen has been celebrated both as a systems novelist and a family novelist. In an interview he dismissed the latter label, though with the Key to All Mythologies trilogy, the first installment of which is Crossroads, he said he was setting out to write “a book about a family.”

Set in the 1970s, Crossroads centers the Hildebrandt family in the fictional midwestern town of New Prospect, under the care of Russ, a pastor at the First Reformed church, and Marion, his wife, whose sense of reality is slowly coming apart. While anchoring a novel on a suburban family’s dysfunction is not new territory for Franzen (or modern American literature!), the attention he had once devoted to the nuts and bolts of nonprofit organizations, laundering schemes, and cultish whistleblowing projects is now turned to the inner workings of the white, Christian, suburban family. It’s some of his most gripping systemic work yet.

If the mechanical details of the midwestern suburban family, with the anxious mother at the helm, are the consistent background to Franzen’s work, then the housewife is the model Franzen character: the collision between the system and the family. In suburbia, the plight of Franzen’s housewives is of a piece with their entrapment. Repeatedly looping around the familiar periphery of the cul-de-sac, they protect themselves from their less secure pasts while at the same time alienating themselves from the world that surrounds them. They lose their grip on the difference between how they are received — as bonafide suburban moms, complete with the nagging and the SUV; with ambivalent husbands and oscillating, by turns loving and bitter, relationships with their neighbors — and who they really are. This becomes clear in the contrast between the women and their offspring, who are city people, chefs, geniuses, and fuck-ups; but at least they have a firmer sense of self. Here is the truth that Franzen has repeatedly observed in domestic life: Obliquely or directly, all crises have to do with mothers; with the burden of familial devotion or the passing down of feelings of inadequacy.

Depictions of the housewife across culture have often dealt in insanity; as far back as The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892 and as recently as the essence of the Real Housewives franchise, there is something about domestic confinement that creates a neat, familiar trope. After all, being stuck in the house, as we all have come to know during COVID, can and does drive a person insane.

But because we’re quick to assume the origin of insanity lies in domesticity itself, the trope doesn’t inspire understanding: We take the housewives’ torment at face value, narrowing the scope and nuance of a woman’s pain. This is why Marion’s story resonates so acutely in Crossroads: The depth of her despair rescues her from the confines of the “insane housewife” stereotype. Her backstory, as told to her therapist in a section that epitomizes the great Franzen trick of manipulating time, creates a distance so great from the person she is perceived as (a housewife with an insecurity problem) and the one she really is (a deeply disturbed and scarred woman with a scary history) that the problem of domesticity flips on its head: In a twisted way, her home becomes part of Marion’s salvation.

Still, the second wave of the feminist movement, which peaked in the ’70s around the time of Marion’s therapy sessions, fought vigorously against the kind of life she lives. The threat of domestic entrapment was urgent, the fight ardent. But by the time the ’80s had come and gone, some women had concluded that changing their shackles from the home to the workplace didn’t exactly liberate them. In 2003, Lisa Belkin published an article in the New York Times Magazine that followed a group of women, Princeton graduates from the ’80s, who had traded high-power careers in profitable fields for a stay-at-home life; Belkin termed this decision “opting out.”

While Marion Hildebrandt didn’t have many options, Patty Berglund, the center around which most of Franzen’s 2011 novel Freedom revolves, could have easily been one of Belkin’s subjects. That book tells the story of the Berglunds, a family of four living in Minnesota during the aughts. In parts, the narrative is taken over by Patty’s book-within-the-book autobiography, “composed at her therapist’s suggestion.” The autobiography, like Marion’s therapy session, is an apt narrative device through which to examine the housewife because it focuses on the inner life, as told and experienced by her, rather than on assumptions rising from her perceived hysteria.

Part of the first generation to grow up under the accomplishments of second-wave feminism, Patty saw her own decision to opt out as a direct affront to her ambitious mother, a New York state assemblywoman: “She forsook all others and worked hard to be a great mom and homemaker … [but] her motives were bad. She was competing with her mom and sisters.” Patty had developed an idea, bolstered by her family’s dismissal of her athletic talents, that she wasn’t a good person. The sacrifice inherent to a lifetime of devotion to one’s family and home could serve as a corrective — a saintly refusal of oneself in favor of others.

For Franzen’s housewives, emotional appeal emerges from the tension between their private worlds and their role as homemakers. Franzen understands that the meekness often associated with the domestic woman is counterintuitive: Running a household demands a sense of dominance and authority. The housewife is the boss of the home. In St. Paul, Patty’s neighbors see her as the picture-perfect neighbor, “a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.” While to embody this image is to live up to cultural expectations, it is also to conceal a fiercer, more competitive energy that strives for dominance. Patty is able to carry her secrets as long as the difference between the way she sees herself and the way the world sees her is clearly defined. Likewise, Marion’s role as a pastor’s wife is inextricable from her commitment to secrecy. Obfuscating a life of intense darkness, she resolves to never say what she really feels: “Tomorrow will be exactly 25 years that I’ve been keeping my mouth shut,” she tells her therapist on Christmas Eve.

By placing the housewife at the center of familial drama and using the suburbs as a mirror to reflect the decay of the systems surrounding it, Franzen recognizes the integral role of the housewife as a harbinger of consumerist America and its simultaneous punching bag. No Franzian housewife is a clearer illustration of this than Enid Lambert, the mother desperately trying to keep her family together in The Corrections. Her bitterness about having fallen short of her own life goals belies an embarrassment so constant, it becomes a point of pride. Enid’s aspirations are material: “She intended to be comfortable in life as well as happy,” though she admits that in this pursuit it was a “bad husband she had landed, a bad, bad, bad husband who would never give her what she needed.” Victim to the system that encourages women to think of achievement only in relation to men and wealth, and the punchline of the joke, Enid’s storyline embodies the frustration that has been the housewife’s cross to bear, across so many years and so many plots.

It’s a common assumption that in her selflessness, the housewife — particularly the kind of helicopter mom central to Franzen’s families — is stickily sentimental, pious in her devotion to others. Less common, and infinitely more interesting, is the idea that in her anxiety to conceal, her exaggerated displays of affection are calculated to eclipse the intensity of her private world, a kind of overcompensation. It would be tempting to deduce, from his reputation as a grumpy epitome of male privilege, that Franzen’s patience for the housewife would be short: that he would resort to caricature. But in actuality, his interest in the particular kind of suffering born out of struggling to understand your place in the world creates nearly ideal conditions for his housewife characters to come close to truth — which is to say, to the origin of their contradictions. They are always hiding something, though rarely from themselves; they nurture their secrets in the relative safety of their own heads.

 “To understand the mind,” Franzen writes in The Corrections, “you pictured domestic activity, the hum of related lives on varied tracks, the hearth’s fundamental glow.” In other words, to understand the person, it helps to picture their mother.

The Real Housewives of Jonathan Franzen