Monday, October 8, 2007

The Secret of Lost Things: A Biblionovel Book Review

The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay (NY: Doubleday, 2006)

After hearing a radio interview with the author I had to buy a copy of "The Secret of Lost Things". Biblionovels are one of my reading passions and this book did not disappoint. It provided a neat interweaving of bookstore novel, unusual character studies and a literary puzzle.

The book is a coming of age story about a red-maned Tasmanian daughter of a milliner. Upon her single mother's death she is taken in by her mom's best friend bookseller. The friend sagely suggests having an adventure while she is young and firmly insists that she move off her island and onto another: Manhattan. Our eighteen-year-old heroine, Rosemary Savage, then finds cheap lodging in a women's hotel managed by Lillian, the grieving mother of an Argentine professor, one of the thousands of "the disappeared", tortured and killed by the military junta that ruled during the 1970s.

Rosemary then stumbles into a job at a Strand-like used bookstore, The Arcade, where the characters are eccentric all. There is the store owner, Mr. Pike, a blustering man with Victorian speech patterns; Arcade manager, Walter Geist, an albino with failing eyesight; Nonfiction manager Oscar, an emotionally-stunted fountain of textile minutiae; Pearl, the flirtatious transsexual cashier and would-be opera singer; and the Czar of the Rare Book Room, Mr. Mitchell, a rubicund, pipe-smoking teddy bear who skillfully presses the buttons of upscale book collectors.

With this disparate crew, Hay inserts a small voyage to retrieve a lost Melville novella. There are many interesting scenes at the New York Public Library, collectors' mansions and at Rosemary's second apartment, a heatless and downtrodden flat in the Lower East Side. The theme of the selfish collector, one who amasses the world's treasures but does not share them with others, is fleshed out perfectly with this description of the curator in charge of a millionaire collector's cabinets of curiosities:

"A peevish woman appeared, in her late twenties but dressed expensively in clothes more suited to a woman twice her age. Her hair was set severely in a bun, and she was round without seeming fleshy, somehow taut inside her clothing, at once plump and stiff".

While the novel did not contain as much bookstore gossip as I had hoped, it was an elegantly-written and -plotted book. And, oddly, the central character, Rosemary, seemed the most remote to me. She seems somewhat numb all the time, despite having the most unusual experiences. Still, an absorbing read and another book I am anxious to share with others.

I especially loved the comparison of the millinery supply shops Rosemary would travel to each year with her hatmaking mother and Mr. Mitchell's lair at the Arcade:

"No doubt my fondness for the Rare Book Room came in part from a sense of familiarity. It was a version of Foys' hat workroom from childhood visits to Sydney. There were no piles of skins, no wall of drawers filled with bric-a-brac, but each old volume amounted to something like the same thing. A book was like a drawer; one opened it and notions flew out."

Recommended reading for bibliophiles, Big Apple lovers, Melville fans and most everyone else.


Historia said...

I love biblionovels as well. I HAVE to find this book and read it.

Rachel Jagareski, Old Saratoga Books said...

Hi Historia:

I HAD a copy and forced it on another biblionovel lover this past week, so I am afraid I can't offer you one from our shop, but there are a number of used copies on the Internet to choose from or perhaps your local used bookstore owner could order one for you. Definitely a great read!


Anonymous said...

I just read the book. Loved reading it. Was most intrigued and sympathetic for Walter Geist. Wish to have read something from his point of view.