Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale is a literary mystery spiced with intrigue and conspiracy. It is also a poignant story about one antiquarian bookseller's recovery from the loss of his beloved wife. Lovett, himself a former antiquarian bookseller, weaves an engrossing tale that contemplates the influence of literature, the pain of death, and the power of redemption.
Peter Byerly has retreated to his new cottage in Oxfordshire, England, to recover from the tragic and sudden loss of his wife Amanda. Peter is shy and wary of people. Amanda was gregarious and acted as Peter's support while she was alive. Her confidence gave Peter courage. Now, Peter is alone and depressed. In an effort to take his mind off of his pain, he wanders into a small, dusty bookshop to peruse the shelves. As he thumbs through the browned pages of an old book, a small watercolor portrait falls to the floor. Peter bends to pick it up and sees the lovely face of his dead wife staring back at him. Despite the Victorian dress and the obvious age of the picture, this is Peter's Amanda. Peter becomes obsessed with discovering who created the picture, an artist known only as B.B., believing that if he is able to determine the origin of this watercolor, he may be able to put Amanda's death in the proper context and move on with his life.
Shortly after the watercolor discovery, Peter receives a call from a wealthy man who is looking to sell a few of his old books. Peter soon realizes that many of these volumes are initialed with B.B., suggesting a link with the watercolor Peter found in the bookshop. Though many of the books are valuable, nothing prepares Peter for the unexpected discovery of a small play by Robert Greene, a lesser-known Renaissance playwright with 16th century marginalia (handwritten annotations in the margins) purporting to have been written by William Shakespeare. According to lore, Shakespeare based his play A Winter's Tale on Richard Greene's play. If Peter is able to prove the authenticity of the handwriting on this text, he might be able to definitively prove that William Shakespeare of Stratford, England wrote the most beloved plays of English Literature, rather than the Earl of Oxford, as some scholars argue. Driven into a search both personal and historical, Peter searches for the connection between the jarring picture of his dead wife, a play possibly reworked by Shakespeare, and the enigmatic person known as B.B.
Lovett's novel brims with characters and plotlines, as Peter races to discover the significance of the watercolor and the authenticity of the marginalia on Greene's play. As we follow Peter on his search, Lovett splices in scenes from Peter's courtship with Amanda, episodes about the journey of Greene's play, and vignettes about B.B. We are given first-hand accounts of the play's journey through the numerous people who were purported to have owned it before it arrives in Peter's hands. As Peter discovers information about the play (for example, that Greene first gifted the play to his mistress Emma Ball), we already know the intimate details of the exchange. These scenes create situational irony that adds to the rich atmosphere of the novel and create a suspense-filled reading experience. In addition to flashbacks about the manuscript, we are also allowed first-hand details about Peter and Amanda's relationship. Amanda and Peter fall in love through their mutual adoration for literature and books. Though there are moments when the romance crosses the line from sweet to sappy, Lovett nonetheless creates a compelling backstory for Peter and his passions. Amanda made Peter's interest in books possible, and without her, he would have never had the courage to pursue a business selling antiquarian books. As we see these two college kids fall in love, we realize and sympathize with Peter's debilitating loss that is presented at the novel's exposition. Over time, it becomes clear that Peter's search for the truth behind the marginalia and the watercolor is also a search for the ways in which he can live independent of Amanda.
In addition to the mystery, romance, and drama in Lovett's debut, there is a tender homage to the beauty and history of the physical book. As e-readers grow increasingly ubiquitous, this novel suggests that the passion for and durability of the codex, the beautiful and traditional form books have taken for centuries, will not be easily supplanted. Lovett spends a few pages explaining the process of book restoration, a procedure that seems as artful and complicated as the creation of any sculpture. The first gift he gives Amanda is a restored book. The notion that physical books hold secrets, impart messages, and bridge distances between people runs throughout the novel. A book's plot is important, but what the physical book can actually hold - marginalia, signatures of ownership, old watercolors - can create connective threads that are critical to families and history.
Lovett's debut novel has captivating characters and an engrossing plot. It is filled with everything from romance to intrigue to book restoration. The Bookman's Tale is a delightful read and will be a favorite.
This review was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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