Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Deborah Devonshire, Susan Hill and Jonathan Franzen.

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Wait for Me! by Deborah Devonshire

Wait for Me!, Deborah Devonshire's new memoirs, struck Miranda Seymour in the Guardian as occasionally condescending: "the drabbest parts of her book invites us, her wide-eyed readers, to profit from observing the lives of our betters." Seymour also notes that the author isn't always forthcoming, as readers "are not the duchess's chums; we are her public, and there's no point in hoping that the relationship will become intimate." Still, "this memoir, like it's cheery predecessors, should sell by the lorryload."

Allison Pearson in the Telegraph agrees with Seymour about the duchess's reticence, saying that you can feel Devonshire "exerting that steely grace to avoid certain topics." But Pearson finds herself ultimately compelled by the memoirs, and admits that "even those who would gladly see all Honourables strangled at birth will find it hard to resist this book." Rachel Cooke echos these warm sentiments in the Observer, and forgives Devonshire her reserve. "You read her for her qualities, not for her revelations."

"Wait for Me!" is also our Recommended Read this week

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

"This beautifully written novel may be short, " says Andrew Taylor in the Spectator, "but not a word is wasted." Susan Hill's fourth novel delivers on all the thrills a proper ghost story can offer, and Taylor advises that "The Small Hand is highly recommended for a chilly autumn evening by the fire." In the Scotsman, Leslie MacDowell agrees that it is a "superbly crafted tale" and satisfyingly frightening. "Hill's short novel plays with our developed need for reassuringly down-to-earth explanations for the seemingly inexplicable, and our primal need to be spooked by what we cannot understand.

Jeremy Dyson in the Guardian finds The Small Hand's central theme pleasingly evocative of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and concludes "ultimately, this is a wonderful piece of storytelling that does what a good story ought to do: it keeps you guessing, pulls you in. And when the climax comes, the explanation and the source of the haunting are not what you think at all."

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

"Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, like his previous one, The Corrections, is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life" says Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times. He goes on to compare Franzen's work to the novels of "Dickens and Tolstoy, Bellow and Mann." In the Guardian, Blake Morrison similarly draws a parallel between the form of Franzen's work and those of Dickens and George Eliot, and concludes that in regard the quality of Freedom versus The Corrections, "the new one is just as good as the last."

Leo Robson in the New Statesman, though he admires Franzen's "ability to place the reader right in the thick of his character's lives, so their pain becomes ours", is less uniformly impressed. He doesn't care for "Franzen's insistence on exploring his title-word as if it were a contradictory concept, rather than a noun with different uses," and finds that "in general he is too easily seduced by the cliche-busting paradox." However, Robson readily admits that "this compulsive novel is not to be ignored." James Campbell in the Times Literary Supplement observes that "Freedom contains many virtuoso passages, so many, indeed, that one is subject to the ungrateful suspicion that Franzen can weave the stuff by the yard."