Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: The Secret of Lost Things

I love to happen upon unusual books. While visiting my mother-in-law a few months back, we popped into the local thrift store for a look around. My husband found a clever little coin counter and I discovered this book, The Secret of Lost Things. The cover, with its image of old books and declaration by The Philadelphia Inquirer as an "Altogether enchanting" book, seduced me. Moreover, it bore a sticker declaring it to be "Joanne's Pick" from its time in the Pages for All Ages bookstore. The inside cover contained over a dozen endorsements. One of the endorsements was the clincher: "Most bibliomaniacs are suckers for a novel that focuses on books, a bookstore or characters who also suffer from bibliomania. In Sheridan Hay's debut, the reader gets all three." (- Portland Tribune) Being a bibliomaniac, I handed over my buck and went home with the book, full of eager anticipation.

I can see why so many were willing to provide accolades. It is, indeed, full of "endearingly eccentric characters" (USA Today), "subtle literary threads" featuring Melville, Auden, and Shakespeare (The Charlotte Observer), and a "shadowy, at times thrilling, atmosphere" (Willamette Week). I agree with Nuala O'Falain that it is a "brilliant version of the coming-to-adulthood-in-Manhattan story with a page-turner of a plot about a lost manuscript for which the people around the charming heroine are willing to do very nasty things." Set in a bookstore and focused on a treasured missing manuscript by a famous author, the story is one with great appeal for anyone book lover. However, I still hesitate to endorse it fully, mostly because of the crudity.

While there were interesting characters (including a transexual), while the bookstore was entrancing, and while the allusions to Melville, Auden and Shakespeare filled my heart with joy, I felt uncomfortable with certain aspects of the novel. The sad thing is that this debut novel could have soared to heights with all readers had the author simply left out the unnecessary description of halting sexual encounters. Although I understand that the romantic elements were necessary in order to create the level of conflict Rosemary experiences, the actual sexual activity could have been muted or simply alluded to.

The main character, Rosemary, is an orphan who flees her home in Tasmania hoping to begin life anew in New York City. She stumbles into The Arcade, a fascinating bookstore, and knows immediately that this is where she wants to work. (Who wouldn't want to work there?) She is surprised when they give her a job. She begins to meet all the odd and unusual characters working in the store. When the manager, an albino with failing eyesight, begs her to read a letter, which tells of a mysterious manuscript by Melville obtained illegally and up for sale, Rosemary is sucked unwittingly into a plot of mammoth proportions.

I was most impressed with the vocabulary level of the novel. I have rarely encountered as many unfamiliar words while reading. I made a short list of the words I didn't recognize: palimpsest, gimcracks, reliquary, isolatos, farouche, recherche, janissary, votary, obloquy, oenophile, limned, and enfilade. Most words were easily understood in the context of the sentence, but it was, nonetheless, fun to meet new (to me) words.

For expanding vocabulary and meeting eccentric characters, you cannot go wrong here (not that I anticipate actually using those unusual words). If you can overlook minor trashy elements, and if you love books and bookstores and the very thought of a missing manuscript, then you will probably enjoy this novel. It has much to recommend it and many speaking of its merits. For a debut novel, Sheridan Hay has done quite well.

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