I was waiting for my coffee at Starbucks last weekend when I noticed a woman reading The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett. I’m not usually the kind of person who initiates conversations with strangers. But if a good book is involved, well…that’s another story (sorry, couldn’t resist). Anyway, I managed to wait until she put the book down and then stepped right over and said, “I noticed you’re reading The Bookman’s Tale. That was one of my favorite books from last summer.” And just like that, we were off. Her husband had read it and told her she just HAD to read it too. I had seen it on a New Releases e-mail from Barnes & Noble and decided to check it out. We both agreed that it was an absolutely delightful book, but unfortunately seemed to be flying under the radar. We both wished that it could find a wider audience.
Here’s the scoop…
The title character is Peter Byerly, an inconspicuous young man with moderate to severe social anxiety issues. His only passions in life are rare books and his wife, Amanda, but as the tale begins, he has lost both – Amanda to an early death and his interest in rare books to his all-encompassing grief. After months in seclusion in an English country village, he finally gathers the strength to enter a bookshop again, where he is stunned to find a small portrait of his wife tucked between the pages of an 18th century book. Only it can’t possibly be Amanda. He resolves to find out the truth, and in doing so, becomes entangled in a bibliographic mystery spanning four centuries.
As Peter traces the history of a rare book that may hold the answers, we’re transported from the 1990’s all the way back to the 1500’s, the mid-1800’s and the 1980’s. Along the way, we meet roguish bookseller Bartholomew Harbottle, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and frustrated artist Phillip Gardner, a Victorian gentleman with a grudge against his neighbor. We also witness Peter and Amanda’s relationship blossom throughout their college years in North Carolina and their all-too-brief marriage.
Author Charlie Lovett, a former antiquarian bookseller, imbues the novel with his own passion for the art of bookbinding and the preservation of rare books. He uses the time-skipping narrative device very effectively to move the story along and reveal key pieces of the puzzle. My only quibble: the events and relationships of the 20th century are the primary focus, and are particularly well developed, but I would have liked to see the characters in the earlier centuries fleshed out a bit more. Their stories certainly held my attention, but they could have been even more compelling with a deeper understanding of their thoughts and motivations.
Nonetheless, I guarantee you’ll find yourself rooting for mild-mannered Peter, the unlikeliest of heroes, to succeed in his quest. If he does so, he’ll not only solve the mystery of the portrait, but may even validate Shakespeare’s legacy as a playwright and, most importantly, put his own ghosts to rest. It’s a rewarding journey for book lovers, history buffs and anyone who appreciates the written word.