The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession, by Charlie Lovett (Penguin Books), 384 pages
The Bookman’s Tale isn’t a new release, but it’s just been issued in paperback. I received an electronic ARC from NetGalley, which was nice for me, since I’d wanted to read it when it first came out.
The Bookman’s Tale has several narrative strands. The one that covers the most historical ground follows the rather storied life of a copy of Robert Greene’s Pandosto with extensive marginal notations by Shakespeare (he used Pandosto as a source for The Winter’s Tale).The remainng two narratives focus on the life of Peter Byerly, a rare book dealer. The earlier strand chronicles his introduction to the world of rare books and his college romance with his future spouse, Amanda. The later takes place after Amanda’s death. Peter has been steadily closing down his life, ignoring friendships, and feeling increasing indifference for is profession.
Peter’s situation changes suddenly and significantly when he finds what appears to be that copy of Pandosto. Of course, he’s not the only one interested in this book and its provenance, and this is where his adventures begin.
Of the several narratives, I was most engaged by the one focusing on Pandosto‘s “life.” The book changes hands frequently through fair means and foul, and readers are given portraits of the rare book business over the course of centuries. The contemporary narrative offers a fairly standard looking-for-a-possible-Shakespearean-book tale, with heirs dismantling family libraries, a night spent in a crypt, and one murder for which Peter is, of course, framed.
The part of this book I found least enjoyable was the college narrative of Peter and Amanda. Peter works in the college’s rare books room, and once he and Amanda fall in love, they have weekly assignations there after hours. In the real world, this kind of misuse of his access would get him fired. In The Bookman’s Tale they make love over and over again at the feet of bookcases filled with precious manuscripts (a fourth folio, a “bad” Hamlet, and much, much more). Neither of them has any qualms about this—and apparently no one else working in the room notices any funny stains on the carpeting. What’s worse is that we, the readers, get adolescent sex, lots of it.
Maybe I’m just a bitter old woman, but these passages left me antsy and dissatisfied. I don’t like romance novels; I do like stories about searches for rare books. The Bookman’s Tale was a mash-up of the two, and my response to the book fluctuated as the book moved from narrative to narrative.
The Bookman’s Tale might make a good weekend read for someone a little less romance-intolerant, but it’s not in the same league with Shadow of the Wind and Possession, with which the publisher’s promotional materials compare it.