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25th July
2009
written by Steph

Worth owning for the drool-inducing cover alone?

Given my love of reading in real life, I’m often drawn to books that feature protagonists that also show some serious lit love.  One glance at the cover of The Secret of Lost Things and you know it’s gonna be a book about books.  When I found out it involved a young woman who winds up working in a used bookstore only to become embroiled in the hunt for a lost, unpublished manuscript by Herman Melville, I knew this was a book I had to read (despite not having read any Melville myself).  You all know that I love a mystery, and a literary mystery?  Even better! It turns out TSoLT both exceeded and fell short of my expectations.  Let me explain.  As soon as I bring back books from the used bookstore, the first thing I do is catalog them in my GoodReads library, because I love lists and am obsessive that way.  I always get a thrill when I pick up a book on a whim only to find it’s been generally rated quite highly by the rest of the book reading community.  When I entered in TSoLT, it had a relatively meager 3.06 rating, and the bulk of the first reviews I skimmed were generally very negative (we’re talking 1 star ratings… I almost never give books such a low score!).  So I had my hopes severely dashed that this would wind up being a good read and shunted it to the bottom of the pile.  Fast forward several months to a few days ago when I was looking for a book that would have an engaging plot but not necessarily challenge me.  I wanted something to capture my attention but not really require much effort on my part… so I figured I would give TSoLT a shot, because why not?  I picked it up and started to read and… I was completely swept away.  It was by no means a perfect book and yet parts of it really resonated with me, and I wound up finding it a really fun and effortless read; it was the kind of book where you read 30 pages without realizing it.  So in that sense, TSoLT exceeded my expectations and absolutely fit the brief for what I was looking for. But where TSoLT falls short is in its billing as a literary mystery, because it really isn’t.  The Melville manuscript that gets so much prominence on the back cover doesn’t even really become a plot point until the second half of the book, and even then it plays second (or even third) fiddle to other stories for quite a while.  And after that extremely slow boil, that storyline winds up getting a really rushed ending with the strings all tied up (or snipped, more like it) almost in such a way that you figure the author realized she’d have to write a book about 900 pages long if she wanted to really continue developing the story at the pace she was so maybe she should just end it.  I think this is why most readers who approached this novel were disappointed, because the literary mystery isn’t really the guts or the heart or the soul of this book.  It almost feels like an afterthought.  So why did I like it then, when it didn’t deliver what it promised?  I think there are two things that really did work for me with this book.  First, even if the mystery element of the novel was lacking, the literary part wasn’t.  There’s an awful lot of lit love going on, and I couldn’t help but feel a natural kinship with Rosemary who ensconces herself in a musty world of books and words.  Hay writes so lovingly and tenderly about books and their power to transport, to comfort, to ignite our passions, that I couldn’t help but get caught up in the spirit of it all.  To me, this book was like a warm blanket whose story cocooned me.  I defy anyone who loves to read, who loves books and what they represent, to read TSoLT and not feel a kinship with this story on that level.  But second, and more personally, there were elements of Rosemary that I saw as reflections of younger version of me.  So even though she does foolish things, even though she is frustratingly naïve at times, I wasn’t bothered by her behavior because I’ve been there.  I especially sympathized with her obsession with fellow bookstore worker Oscar – her desire to emulate him, her idolizing of him, her desperate wish for him to love her.  Even though he was self-centered and pretentious, is only interested in himself, in accruing knowledge and lording it over others, and consequently has no ability to care for anyone else, and perhaps most importantly, no interest.  Most people know better than to fall for people like Oscar, but… I’ve known my own real-life Oscar, so I completely understood where Rosemary was coming from and I know that it sucks and that your glorification of this person can be blinding and cause you to do foolish things.  I don’t claim having a relationship like that is a universal part of growing up, but it was certainly part of my experience… As I said, on a very personal level, I connected with this book. Upon reflection I see TSoLT not as a literary mystery, but simply a literary novel exploring themes of loss, love, loneliness, and growing up, and I was able to appreciate it on those merits instead.  There were times when I found the writing a bit overwrought, but generally speaking I found it quite lovely and touching, and there was a raw honesty to the character of Rosemary and her experiences.  But even apart from the more reflective and introspective elements, I thought this debut novel exhibited promising storytelling simply in that good old-fashioned way.  It takes place in New York City, in a bookstore, and has an extremely colorful cast of characters (apart from Rosemary and Oscar, you’ll also meet a pre-op transvestite, an albino, a sassy Argentinian plagued with sorrows of her own, to name a few), which give it the punches of color and vivacity that keep things interesting. It’s not a perfect novel because I think Hay was obviously confused about what she wanted this book to be and it obviously fails as a mystery, but I think there is enough here that is ultimately good and worthwhile.  It’s not a perfect corollary to Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, but the two are not wholly dissimilar, and fans of that looking for a story with a similar vibe though a different scope may enjoy this too.  I think if you remove the expectation that this will be a fast-paced action-packed mystery you will find a completely different story that is just as, if not more, rewarding.  It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was far better than I expected it to be and I don’t regret having read it (added bonus: Hay is an Australian by birth, so I get to make some headway on the whole "read more international fiction" goal, even if the book is primarily set in America) .  I’d recommend borrowing this one from the library and seeing what you think. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

7 Comments

  1. Lu
    07/25/2009

    I read this one about a year ago, and was one of the folks who rated it pretty low (I gave it a 2/5 on Shelfari), but like you, I remember loving things about it. I also connected with Rosemary and really liked the literary love too, but I was so so so so disappointed by the turn it took at the end. This is a really great review!

  2. 07/25/2009

    Hmmm… I started listening to the audio version of this book a while back and ended up not even finishing the second disc. It wasn’t terrible, but the quirky characters were just too, too off-beat, and there was no sign of a mystery. In the right mood, I suppose I might have enjoyed it, but your review confirms that I wasn’t missing anything spectacular by giving up on it. Whew!

  3. 07/25/2009

    @ Lu: I totally understand people reading the book and being disappointed with respect to the mystery, since that storyline really felt like a second-thought, or as something Hay added in to make her book more marketable. It definitely wasn’t the strongest element in the novel, so I was happy there were other elements that redeemed it in my eyes.
     
    @ Teresa: I could see how the quirky characters might be too over the top for some readers. I think I was in the kind of mood where I actually wanted outlandish characters, sort of like a modern-day Dickens, if that makes any sense. I think I appreciated how they livened up what is otherwise a very pensive and stolid book, but that could have had much to do with my mood.

  4. 07/26/2009

    I do love that cover! Sounds intriguing.

  5. 07/26/2009

    I’m looking forward to reading this one!

  6. 07/28/2009

    It sounds like you were able to adjust your expectations while reading the book, and were able to really appreciate what was there, instead of lamenting what was not. After reading your review, I am thinking that this book would be perfect for me. I love books about books, and I don’t really think I would be too hung up on the lack of mystery, so it would probably be a perfect fit. It’s funny because I was thinking it sounded a bit like The Thirteenth Tale as well. Great review, this one goes on the wish list.

  7. 07/29/2009

    @ zibilee: I never thought of it the way you put it, but I guess you are right about me being able to switch gears and appreciate the book I was reading, not the book I thought I would be reading. In the past I have often found myself disappointed when books defied my expectations, but for whatever reason I was able to just go with the flow with this one and wound up finding it really rewarding.

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