Bookman’s Tale (NetGalley)
A dreary day–rain drenched Wales–a bookshop–a rare book collector. The opening paragraphs of Charles Lovett’s recently published The Bookman’s Tale is sure to hook any bibliophile. And so begins the story of Peter Byerly: book binder, bookseller, recently widowed, and grieving. Peter walks into that bookshop, opens a book, and absent-mindedly picks up a paper that flutters to the floor. What he isn’t expecting to see is a small watercolor of what looks like his dead wife. Shaken, Peter begins a search to find out the woman’s identity and just how she came to be in the book in the first place. When I first read the publisher’s blurb, I
hoped thought this just might be another time travel novel–I kept waiting!–but about halfway through Tale I realized I was immersed in a mystery. (And the woman’s identity was revealed at the end!)
Lovett shifts between Peter’s present story, his life before the death of his wife Amanda, and even still further back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It is when Peter interns as a college student in the university’s special collections that he learns the ins and outs of rare books–and the forgeries that sometimes become almost as valuable as the special collections themselves. Peter’s search for the truth about that watercolor lead him into the world of Shakespeare deniers, and it soon becomes clear that he just might hold the key to proving whether or not Shakespeare was indeed the writer of the works ascribed to him–could the copy of Pandosto (an early version of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale) that Peter holds be the key?
In terms of simple storytelling, I found Peter’s present and recent past much more compelling than following the subterfuge of the earlier centuries. The names, dates, and texts that traded hands blurred at times, and, my biggest complaint as a reader, I almost think the author tried to cover too much territory–there was a family feud, mistress, bastard child, and forgery that changed hands four (?) times. Peter and Amanda’s story was powerful enough. I felt as Amanda did during their courtship when she listened to Peter’s rare book discoveries and “quietly indulged his passion, despite the fact that she could not keep straight the maze of collectors and dealers with whom [Peter] had interacted.” Only I was indulging the author’s passions.
But I’m not a great reader of mysteries, so this might just be my own shortcoming as a reader! Overall, I enjoyed Bookman’s Tale … and the ending that was just shy of happily ever after.