I’ve mentioned this before in earlier posts, but sometimes when I go looking for books, I pick up books I’ve never heard of. I do this mainly based on the cover, the synopsis and the first sentence of the book. If the first two get me interested, I’ll use the first sentence as the final litmus test.
In the case of The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay, all these things came together. It had a nice cover (a good picture of old books), an interesting synopsis (that described working in an ancient bookstore called The Arcade), and a great first sentence:
I was born before this story starts, before I dreamed of such a place as the Arcade, before I imagined men like Walter Geist existed outside of fables, outside of fairy tales.
So all of my usual tests came together. I picked up the book, took it home and started reading.
That was when I realized my three-pronged test wasn’t foolproof; one of the most dreadful books had slipped through.
The story follows one Rosemary Savage, a girl from Tasmania. Her mother, the owner of a bookshop passes away in the first few pages of the book and Rosemary, at the urging of a family friend, strikes out on her own and heads of to New York City.
When she arrives, she finds a job in a huge used and rare book shop called the Arcade. The Arcade is peopled by a interesting set of employees, each with their own idiosyncriaces and egos. The rest of the story deals with how Rosemary, a naive girl from Tasmania tries to make her way in New York City and deal with the subtle (and not so subtle) manipulations of the employees at the Arcade as they try to get their hands on a lost manuscript of Herman Melville’s.
Another Failed Test
I just mentioned my test for finding books, but another test I have for books is how eager I am to read them. After the first 30 pages or so, I can’t say I ever picked up The Secret of Lost Things with an eager mind. It was a chore, and only the short length of the book allowed me to get through it.
One of the main reasons for this is the slow pacing of the book. Rosemary takes what seems like forever to really establish herself within the Arcade, and when she does we get long chunks of narrative which simply serve to describe how she decorates her small apartment with trinkets she finds along the way.
The characters within this book, while perhaps being unique, are people you don’t really wish to know any better. Rosemary is, for all intents and purposes, pathetic. She trusts people even after they prove themselves untrustworthy, she never really goes after things she wants (except when she knows she can’t have them), and she lets herself be manipulated left and right. The other characters range from self-involved to almost crude and incestuous.
Now, I am a strange breed, in that I have an English degree, but have never read Moby Dick or any other work by Herman Melville. Perhaps if I had read or cared deeply for this author, I may have enjoyed this book more, as it does detail some of his life, including actual correspondence. I’m still not sure that would have got me past all the rest of the story, though.
As you can tell, I really wasn’t very fond of this book. My advice would be to skip it and look for another book with a cool cover, a nice synopsis and a great first line.
Who would like this book: I’m not sure. Perhaps a huge fan of Melville.
Who would not like this book: Most everybody I know.