Lovett, Charlie. First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen.

NY: Penguin, 2014.

Awhile back, I read Lovett’s first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, which also has a bibliographical theme (a lost Shakespeare primary source that time) and quite enjoyed it. This one is even better. The author has been an antiquarian bookseller and he brings that whole slightly strange world very much to life. At the same time, he successfully combines an exciting mystery and detective plot with a believable and non-sappy love story, which isn’t easy.

Sophie Collingwood is a book person through and through, a natural bent that was encouraged and cultivated since adolescence by her bachelor Uncle Bertram, owner of a much-loved and heavily read library which Sophie was given the run of. Her father kept the library in their own country house locked up out of resentment at not being allowed to sell it, so Bertram’s London flat became her haven. She’s just completed a master’s degree in literature at Oxford when Bertram’s body is found at the bottom of the stairs, apparently the victim of an accidental fall. She isn’t quite buying it, though.

Sophie has recently made the acquaintance of the American Eric Hall, also an Oxford grad, and while she’s annoyed by his social recklessness, she has to admit he kisses nicely. Eric is off to Paris, though, so maybe that potential problem will take care of itself — especially since she’s also being swept off her feet by the attentions of the very sexy Winston Godfrey.

But that’s only half the story — literally. In alternating chapters, we are introduced to the young Jane Austen at the very beginning of her career in 1797. Jane meets eighty-year-old clergyman Richard Mansfield and the two hit it off immediately, becoming almost instantly close friends on an intellectual level. Mansfield, a lover of novels, encourages Jane to pursue her writing, provides cogent advice regarding characters and plot, and also acts as her confessor when she most needs it.

Back in the present, Sophie begins following clues regarding an obscure little book of didactic moral tales published by the same Rev. Mansfield, which may help explain what really happened to her uncle. At the same time, she makes a start on recovering the thousands of books in Bertram’s estate — which her father had sold out from under her in order to fix the roof back home. (Her agony at this unfeeling action will be understood by any real book-lover.)

It’s a pretty good story, with mysterious threatening phone calls, excavations in university archives, romantic postcards from abroad, secret breaking and entering, and a little hot sex, too. Something for everyone, in other words. It’s all a lot of fun, especially for Austen fans, and I’ll be interested to see what Lovett comes up with next.

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