CROSSROADS by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate £20, 592 pp)

CROSSROADS by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate £20, 592 pp)


by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate £20, 592 pp)

Poking fun at Jonathan Franzen has become almost obligatory. Detractors don’t lack ammunition: there was the spat with Oprah Winfrey over Franzen’s 2001 blockbuster, The Corrections; the hyperbolic Time magazine cover; a list of writing tips that attracted online derision, and accusations of sexism and elitism.

Franzen will always be an easy target — yet his talents as a comic storyteller are such that his capacious tales are a treat to get lost in. This one is no exception.

The first instalment of a projected trilogy, Crossroads introduces us to the Illinoisan Hildebrandt family who, collectively and individually, are reaching a fork in the road.

It’s 1971, and the humiliated Reverend Russ Hildebrandt is sorely behind the times, too square even for his own church’s youth group.

But Russ has other things on his mind: a widowed parishioner whom he desires as passionately as he despises his wife, Marian.

She, however, has secrets of her own, and the trauma of her slowly revealed history proves far-reaching.

Also braided in are the stories of the younger Hildebrandts: popular cheerleader Becky; unstable, pot-smoking Perry, and serious student Clem who, determined to stick it to his old dad, resolves to fight in Vietnam.

This is a novel whose momentum often derives from the altered states of its characters — obsession; intoxication; lust; religious fervour; mania — and the humour is usually of the painful variety as their lives uniformly crumble and they agonise over how — or indeed whether — to be good.

After 600 pages, I confess my interest in Russ Hildebrandt was largely exhausted. But I will be curious to see where the rest of the clan go next.

CLOUD CUCKOO LAND by Anthony Doerr (4th Estate £20, 640 pp)

CLOUD CUCKOO LAND by Anthony Doerr (4th Estate £20, 640 pp)


by Anthony Doerr (4th Estate £20, 640 pp)

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doerr’s new novel is a multi-stranded epic that turns on a lost, ancient Greek novel describing a comically credulous shepherd’s search for a celestial utopia.

In Idaho in 2020, Zeno, an octogenarian translator of the text and former Korean prisoner-of-war, is overseeing its transition to the stage. But as he and his cast of children rehearse, they are caught up in an act of eco-terrorism.

The perpetrator is Seymour, whose sensitivity to the destruction of the natural world has driven him to breaking point.

And, fast-forwarding far into the future, it’s that destruction that has resulted in 14-year-old Konstance and her family joining an intergalactic mission to find a new, habitable planet.

Meanwhile, in 15th-century Constantinople, a young, orphaned seamstress becomes enchanted by a book that promises to contain the whole world.

A paean to stories as a source of sustenance and solace, and to the sweetness of our shared terrestrial home, Doerr’s narrative is buoyant with humanity and its author’s palpable pleasure in invention.

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