Sunday, June 02, 2013

Book Review: "The Bookman's Tale"

A book about antiquarian books and forgery, actually written by someone who knows about such things and can write about them coherently? Needless to say, I wasn't about to miss this one. Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession (Viking, 2013) is just such a book, and it's also an engaging and enjoyable read.

Peter Bylerly is an American rare book dealer living in the English countryside, still recovering from the tragic death of his wife, Amanda. When, in leafing through a copy of Edmond Malone's Inquiry into the authenticity of certain miscellaneous papers... he stumbles upon a 19th-century watercolor of a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Amanda, Peter feels compelled to learn more about the artist and his subject, and that leads him into quite a tangled web of forgery, deceit, and long-running family feuds (let us not speak of what he does with the watercolor; suffice it to say that it follows the long-running pattern in books of this type, with the protagonist taking an action which will make most biblio-folk cringe a bit).

Lovett intersperses Peter's narrative with flashbacks, both to ten years prior when Peter first got interested in rare books (and Amanda) during his college years, and to earlier scenes where the important rare book at the centerpiece of the plot passed from hand to hand through generations of readers (by means both fair and foul). It's filled with good details about Shakespeare scholarship, forgery, and the world of bookselling, and there's even a scene involving a Hinman Collator. (If there are other novels in which a collator is featured, I don't know of them but would very much like to, so please do let me know if you can think of any). 

Now, there are a few particularly amazing coincidences throughout the book, a detail is off here and there, I could have done without some or all of the trysting in the rare book room (really?!), and I figured out the final twist fairly early on. But on the whole, I actually quite liked this book, and recommend it highly.

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