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What the critics liked

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen 

In 2001 Jonathan Franzen became a literary celebrity, says Becca Rothfeld in The Atlantic. The American author published The Corrections – an almost 600-page family drama set in suburban America. Franzen sold three million copies and graced the front cover of Time magazine. The headline read: “Great American Novelist”. So it’s no surprise that, 20 years later, he has returned to similar territory. Crossroads (Fourth Estate £20) is an almost 600-page family drama set in suburban America. It’s also his best book yet.

The story follows the Hildebrandt family. There’s Russ, the father, a pastor prone to “moral waffling”; Clem, a pacifist college student; Perry, a snarky, drug-addicted teenager; Becky, 19 and happy; Judson, nine and saintly; and Marion, the mother. Franzen’s detractors accuse him of writing flat female characters. Marion proves them wrong. “She is the most memorable Hildebrandt, if not the most vividly living of all Franzen’s creations.”

It’s Marion who “cracks this novel fully open”, says Dwight Garner in The New York Times. At first she’s frumpy and virtually invisible. Then, mid-novel, she wakes up. “She was a mother of four,” she realises, “with a 20-year-old’s heart.” Franzen peels back the layers of her life: her months in a mental hospital, her doomed affair with a car dealer, her abortion. “She can resemble a character out of Muriel Spark’s fiction, a thwarted girl of slender means who becomes an unlikely heroine.”

Franzen loves being unstylish, says Molly Young in Vulture. The prose is straightforward, the language is unadorned. But sometimes I wanted more. There are larger themes in Crossroads – consumerism, Christianity, class – “but they play in the background like a nearly inaudible score”. Still, even when he misses, Franzen takes a big swing. “Not a lot of other novelists can say the same.”

This is the first book in a trilogy called A Key to All Mythologies – the title of Edward Casaubon’s life’s work in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It’s a challenge, says Franzen. Casaubon dies before finishing his project, “and undertaking writing three books in my sixties, I thought, ‘Well, that’s a funny little joke.’” But Crossroads is similar to Eliot in other ways, says James Walton in The Daily Telegraph. Franzen has a “Middlemarch-like ability” to know more about the characters than they know themselves. Some people call this tone sneering, but that’s either misreading or cynicism. Franzen never says: “Look at what they’re like!” It is always: “Look at what we’re like!”

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.

✍️ 🥵 Jonathan Franzen is a self-confessed “work dog”. I write eight hours every day, including Sundays, he tells The Guardian. The first two to four hours are rewriting what he wrote the day before. Franzen doesn’t like linguistic “showing off”. Instead he has one rule: “Make sure that every sentence is cliché-free and has a thought in it.”

Spider Woman by Brenda Hale 

When Brenda Hale ruled that Boris Johnson had illegally prorogued Parliament, all anyone spoke about was her brooch, says Rachel Cooke in The Observer. The 74-year-old president of the Supreme Court delivered the judgement wearing a diamanté spider brooch. Within hours it went viral, interpreted as code that Hale had trapped the PM. In reality I wore it to brighten my black dress, she says in her memoir, Spider Woman (Bodley Head £20). On her way to court, Hale noticed that her old brooch was broken. She nipped into Cards Galore and bought the spider for £12. Still, the book is called Spider Woman for good reason: “People will pick it up who might otherwise have ignored it.”

Hale is used to being ignored, says Melanie Reid in The Times. A self-described “short, plump, speccy swot”, she grew up a “middle-class outsider” in Yorkshire. Her father died of a heart attack when she was 13. “Watching her devastated mother resume teaching as a single parent made her determined to forge a career at all costs.” She picked law because her teacher told her she wasn’t clever enough to read history. It was a boy’s club, but she stuck with it – becoming the first woman on the Law Commission, the first female Law Lord, the first female Supreme Court justice and finally its first woman head. “Brenda will be a source of anxiety,” wrote one of her fellow justices in his diary, “until we adjust to the very different contribution she will make.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by the author.