Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

It's no secret that I love Jane Austen and that I am like a fly to honey with any and all Austen related books. The only thing that really gives me pause is when the word "mystery" is appended to one of these books (well, that and zombies but since there's no way I'm reading about zombies under any circumstances, it's hardly worth mentioning). I am not really a mystery reader so I have to think long and hard about reading something so clearly outside my happy zone. I am so glad that I pushed past my reservations and picked up Charlie Lovett's new novel, First Impressions, a love letter to book collectors and a fascinating "what if?" literary mystery about Jane Austen and the authorship of Pride and Prejudice.

Told in a double stranded narrative set now and when Jane Austen was a young woman, the novel is a delight. Sophie Collingwood has finished school and doesn't quite know what is next for her when she meet brash American Eric. She is put off by him but somehow intrigued as well. As he is about the leave England, she doesn't have to think too hard about him even though he tracks her to her family home and alienates her father. She intends to discuss the paradox of this man and what shape her future should take with her much beloved bachelor Uncle Bertram, with whom she has always had more in common than with anyone else in her family. But then Bertram dies in what, to Sophie, is a suspicious fall. She is devastated and then surprised when she discovers that Bertram left his flat and his extensive and personally valuable library to her, his fellow bibliophile.

And so Sophie's future takes an unexpected turn as she determines to move into Uncle Bertram's flat. She is blindsided though when she discovers that his gorgeous library, the one that has been her own inspiration for so long, has been liquidated in order to pay off debts and she vows to track down at least the most important of the books from his library, the ones he chose each year from the locked and inaccessible library at her own family home as a Christmas gift. She also turns to one of his friends, an antiquarian bookseller who hires her on the spot to work in his shop, giving her the chance to be surrounded by books and to relish the hunt for special requests, including an odd request (or two) for a seemingly nonexistent second edition of a dry collection of morality tales by a nineteenth century cleric.

In chapters alternating with Sophie's story is the tale of Jane Austen and her growing friendship with octogenarian Richard Mansfield, who has taken up residence not far from her family. He is a wonderful sounding board and keen critic for her writing, helping her to develop and improve her drafts encouraging her and becoming incredibly important to her over time.

The two plot lines seem unrelated in the beginning aside from Sophie's love of Austen but they start to dovetail nicely as Sophie meets and gets involved with the very attractive Winston, the first person to ask her about the small book of morality tales. When she is given the same commission by a shadowy figure named Smedley, she has no idea where her search will lead, although the second plot line about Austen and the Reverend Mansfield and their close, confiding connection offers clues.

As the two plot lines start to make sense together, the literary mystery confounding Sophie picks up in pace and tension. Readers familiar with the fact that the first draft of Pride and Prejudice was called First Impressions can hardly miss the unreliable nature of first impressions both in Sophie's tale and in Austen's and will appreciate the whisper of allusion. In pursuing the fictional question of authorship, Lovett has also drawn the reader's attention to the curious and fascinating idea of the printer behind the physical books and the printer's oeuvre above and beyond the worth of the works themselves.  Lovett's description of Uncle Bertram's library and the impetus behind each book's inclusion in that library is completely intoxicating. There are some slightly outlandish coincidences necessary to drive the plot and the scenes in Austen's time aren't quite as compelling as those in Sophie's. But over all, this is a charming novel sure to appeal not only to lovers of Austen but to everyone who loves books and the adventures that they offer us.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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