Lovett, Charlie. The Bookman’s Tale.

NY: Viking, 2013.

Subtitled “A Novel of Obsession,” so I had my doubts about this one at first. It started out rather like a “women’s novel” (sorry), with a recently widowed young book dealer and conservator relocating from North Carolina to a village in Oxfordshire to escape his ghosts. But it soon turns into a full-bore romp involving the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, the arcane world of bibliomania, and the history of collectors with money to spend.

But Lovett also deals with the nature of grief and how to survive it, and the nascent love story that creeps in toward the end is very nicely, and realistically, handled.

Peter Byerly is a born bookman, as he discovers in his first semester in college. He’s always been reclusive, a loner — partly because of his drunken parents, partly because of his own neuroses — and hiding out in the library is his idea of heaven. (As a lifelong librarian and book junky, I can relate to that feeling very easily.) And then he meets Amanda, a year younger, for whom he falls very heavily. She’s a very different sort of person — and wealthy, too — but they turn out to be the perfect couple. But nothing lasts and suddenly she’s gone.

Moving to the English cottage they had only recently acquired is Peter’s way of hiding out once again, but then he discovers a 19th-century watercolor tucked inside a book that appears to be a portrait of his late wife. No, this isn’t a time-travel romance, and the watercolor will take a back seat to a further discovery — one that will answer once and for all the questions regarding William Shakespeare the London playwright vs. Mr. Shakspeare the Stratford businessman. The story is told in alternating sections set in the 1980s (how Peter and Amanda met and got together), the 16th to 19th centuries (as a certain important and amazing book wends its way through history down to us), and the present day (as Peter unravels the puzzle and deals with the implications — and a couple of murders). And he manages to get his life back under control, too.

For a first novel (though he has apparently been writing children’s plays for years), this is a very well written book. The plotting is well handled, the dialogue rings true, and the emotional aspects are adult and believable. And Lovett is himself a former antiquarian bookseller with what is obviously a deep understanding of his field — which is to say, I found nothing to pick nits about regarding the hypnotic world of books. He apparently has several more novels out now and I’ll be interested to see if he can do it again.


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