Few bibliophiles, fiction lovers or anyone, really, interested in a good story could resist the opening line in “Crossings” (St. Martins Press), a debut novel by Alex Landragin.
“I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
As a reader and critic, I’m happy Landragin wrote this line. It wasn’t in an early draft of the book’s beginning — which can you view for yourself here — but it sets up an interconnected series of stories that comprise one of the most enjoyable, intriguing and distracting reads from this summer of great pandemic.
To sum, it’s the book you need today. But under Landragin’s pen, it’s also the book you’ll need tomorrow because the author has done something wonderful and wicked within its pages. “Crossings” isn’t one stolen book. It’s two.
As the story goes, Paris is on the edge of the Nazi occupation when a German-Jewish bookbinder is given a manuscript, “Crossings,” to bind but not to read. As it comes into his permanent, if dubious, possession following the death of the owner, the Parisian does read the book and finds it’s composed of three successively more unusual narratives.
The first is a ghost story written by a minor poet for an illiterate girl. The second is a romance centering on a man whose recurring and increasingly vocal middle-of-the-night nightmares are cured through the love of a storyteller. The third is a memoir from a woman who claims, and details, a life that has spanned seven generations.
The wonderful part is that the stories are visibly interconnected and the novel can be read straight through quite enjoyably.
But the wicked part is that this is not the way the author meant it to be read. Through following the novel’s opening direction, the reader is invited to consume “Crossings” in the “Baroness sequence” — so named for the original owner who listed in a note the alternate reading order. In that world, the novel begins on page 150, and from there you are directed to the next section in a remarkable order of reading that uncovers the three narratives’ interconnections more fully than the accustomed linear path. In this way, the novel is viewed more as chapters than a book of stories — and it works.
Not every reader has the desire to read a novel straight-through twice, but you’ll want to do so with “Crossings.” And when you do, you'll ask, how to begin? Which way to go?
That’s up to you.
Whichever path you start on, you’ll finish at the end with a group of seemingly contrasting characters clamoring for empathy, love and longing.
In a series of stories that embrace one another like no other novel out this season, that is both just enough, and more than we could ask for.