Book reviews roundup: Purity, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights and The Story of the Lost Child

What the critics thought of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months … and Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child

As surely as autumn means back to school, it also brings the publication of a glut of high-profile novels. Over the past month or so, some of the biggest beasts in fiction – Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie – have been butting up against one another on the literary pages. Franzen is currently the biggest of them all, and perhaps partly for that reason his latest offering, Purity, was on the receiving end of considerable sniping. Several critics found the plotting overly elaborate, with “a suggestion of the airport thriller”, as Adam Lively put it in the Sunday Times. “The skills that have justly placed Franzen in the top rank of American writers are abundantly evident,” he wrote, but “Dickensian references merely underline a streak of contrivance in the plot.” For Harry Ritchie in the Daily Mail, “this is a novel with an odd reliance on melodrama: there’s a murder, a long-lost father, several fraught and intense love affairs.” In the Times, Philip Hensher was underwhelmed by the sections of the book set in Germany. “When Franzen ventures outside America, he demonstrates the usual interpretation: the world wants to be American, and talks about America without cease. This is one of Franzen’s limitations as a novelist, limitations of which he remains insistently, even aggressively unaware.”

Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was similarly divisive. “It is a riotous, exuberant and sometimes maddening celebration of the power of storytelling, and of the importance of education and culture,” wrote Christina Patterson in the Sunday Times. “What it is not, though, is an easy read. There are times when the writing can seem didactic. We’ve got the message about fundamentalism, thanks, and don’t need to keep having it spelt out.” John Sutherland in the Times, who drew surprising comparisons between the novel and Ghostbusters, liked it almost despite himself: “Not everyone will think he’s worth the effort. Those, for example, who denigrate him as the Shah of Blah. I think he repays a lot of effort.” In the Independent, Hassan Mahamdallie described the book as making for “a rather disquieting read and the feeling of having glimpsed someone’s personal revenge fantasy ... If you can buy into the binary – enlightenment good, Islamic fundamentalism bad, rationalism good, faith in the supernatural dumb – you may feel some warmth generated by a flush of moral superiority. However, you should still feel short-changed that the author has squeezed out most of the ambiguities, contradictions and unexpected elements from the central intellectual debate.”

A bit of welcome relief from the testosterone-fuelled big beastery came in the form of The Story of the Lost Child, the final instalment of Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular quartet of Neapolitan novels. “This is not the Italy of buxom matrons cheerfully rolling out pasta,” wrote Melissa Katsoulis in the Times. “This is a grimy place of motorways, building sites and smelly bins ... no foreign reader will see Italy in the same way again.” For Rachel Cusk, in the New York Times, Ferrante “adumbrates the mysterious beauty and brutality of personal experience”, with her preoccupations being “the inherent radicalism of modern female identity; the struggles of the female artist … with her biological and social destiny as a woman.”

The GuardianTramp

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