First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, (Viking Books), 320 pages, release date 16 October, 2014
Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale, has a new novel out: First Impressions. Like The Bookman’s Tale, First Impressions is a multi-period literary mystery, but in this case the two protagonists are women and the literary mystery concerns the work of Jane Austen. Austen lovers should love this book. Jane is portrayed respectfully and given a satisfying and appropriate fictional relationship. Sophie Collingwood, the present-day heroine, is an Austen lover determined to find and to disprove evidence that Austin borrowed the plot for Pride and Prejudice from a collection of allegories by an obscure clergyman. The very title of Lovett’s book should draw in Austen fans: First Impressions was the working title for Pride and Prejudice.
As readers of lost-book-and-authorship mysteries will quickly realize, First Impressions is a formula book—but an engaging and well-written one. (I could also point out that formula books exist precisely because they are appealing to readers, formula or no.) Lovett alternates chapters set in the present day with chapters set in Austen’s lifetime, keeping these brief and engaging enough that the reader can easily be tempted to read “just one more chapter.”
The propriety of the Austen chapters provides an interesting foil to the present day chapters, which aren’t really racy, but do present a much different set of morés. Sophie is quite willingly bedded on the third date. When she and her sister Victoria discuss new men in their lives, they sort them into the categories “kill, bed, or wed.” Nonetheless, Sophie comes across as an Austen-like character: inexperienced in love and both shy and genuine in her romantic interactions.
Like some of Austen’s fiction, First Impressions is disproportionately populated by characters with a certain kind of wealth: money, land and/or rare books. Sophie grew up on the family estate, which needs continual repairs, but is quite impressive. Her beloved Uncle Bertram has one of the finest book collections in all of England. Both of the present-day romantic leads appear to be independently wealthy. In other words, while Sophie makes a good every-woman, she lives a life quite different from the lives of most of those apt to read this book.
This isn’t a book that will change readers’ lives, but it is a great deal of fun, particularly for bookish sorts. Readers may learn a bit about the history of publishing and current methods of bibliographic research, but for the most part what they’ll get is several hours of pleasant entertainment with enough references to literature to make them feel like insiders.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. The opinions in this review are my own.