It would be easy to dislike this book. The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe opens with vivid descriptions of pilgrims who have come to Lourdes to healed juxtaposed with memories of Tóibin's Irish Catholic upbringing, hinting at mysteries and beauties that the rest of the book will, one hopes, elaborate on. This is not that book, though.The purpose of this book isn't to illuminate the Church or a part of Europe. Its stories of finding bars and beers and lunches and flights and hotels and interviews with whatever English speakers he happened to run into, it feels at times like a look behind-the-scenes of the making of that book.
But gradually it becomes clear that the book is actually about Tóibin's failed struggle to understand what he is seeing, whether a pilgrimage site, an abandoned church in the former Soviet Union, or the mass appeal of Pope John Paul II, who makes frequent appearances.