From its cover, to the praise in the jacket and a sweet dedicatory to his father (who “infected” him with love of books), Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale prides itself in being a book made for book lovers. The truth is quite different, because while the book does indeed tell a tale of bibliographical intrigue and adventure, it leaves much to be desired as literature. Joining the Dan Brown school of pseudo-intellectual adventure writing, Lovett’s novel takes on one of the most fascinating conspiracy theories of all time: the idea that William Shakespeare was not the author of his works, unarguably some of the most famous works in world literature.
Lovett jumpstarts his tale with a ghost-like mystery set in a small English town (that one can’t help but imagine as an Agatha Christie-like, as recent widower Peter Byerly makes a spooky discovery in an old book: the portrait of a woman who looks exactly like his wife, Amanda. Peter wonders for a second if it can be his wife, indeed. After all, he communicates with her from beyond the grave. But something tells him that there’s an even deeper mystery to be found in this. His interest is explained as follows, “he had to know where this painting came from—how a hundred-year-old portrait of his wife, who had been born only twenty-nine years ago, had come to be tucked into an eighteenth-century book on Shakespeare forgeries.”
Byerly happens to be a collector, restorer and buyer of antique books, the ultimate bibliographer. Perhaps wanting to find a hobby to get out of his seemingly never ending grief, he tries to discover the origin of this portrait, which sends him down a rabbit hole that includes centuries-long feuds between aristocrats, secretive societies of watercolor collectors and old people with as many secrets as they have gossip.
At the center of the plot is the discovery of a copy of Robert Greene’s Pandosto from 1588, which has been widely regarded as the main influence of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and could very well prove that Shakespeare was indeed the author of all his plays. “The Holy Grail” they call, it and for some reason, we are led to believe that what Peter is holding onto is akin to a time bomb.
The problem is precisely that Lovett assumes too much. He thinks that all of his readers are bibliophiles who will be hypnotized by long descriptions of the materials necessary to restore an antique book (lots of glue, apparently), or that they all will find the Shakespearean mystery truly compelling, he never seems to fathom the idea that some people might have never doubted Shakespeare’s authorship.
However, Lovett never seems deterred by the possibility of alienating his less conspiracy-inclined readers and proceeds to add characters, subplots and timelines that don’t fully click with each other. He divides the novel into three intertwining timelines, the first being modern England, as the grieving Peter gets stuck with a sassy British sidekick/romantic interest called Liz (“An American who knows nothing about watercolors or the Beatles, what will we talk about?” she exclaims). Another timeline is set in North Carolina, where we meet a young Peter as he makes his way through college where he meets his to-be-wife, Amanda, and develops a passion for books. The last and more problematic of all the timelines is one that spans centuries and follows the history of the Pandosto as it passes from owner to owner, all the way to where it first lands on Peter’s hands.
Each of the timelines is interesting enough, with the modern one being an often funny mystery tale, the middle one being a bittersweet romance and a romantic triangle of sorts between a man and his two loves: his work and his girlfriend, and the last one being fascinating merely for the historical facts sprinkled throughout. The problem is when Lovett jumps between each of these in between chapters. He often kills the wave the chapter had been riding, if you will, by jumping across space and time without ever justifying why. And then the momentum is lost.
Lovett’s style is elegant and polished, some of his passages have true beauty in them, but The Bookman’s Tale feels rather unfinished as a whole. Because it tries to be so much for so many, it ends up being too little of everything. Alas, bibliophiles may feel cheated of what could have been a superb love song to the art of restoration. Romance readers may feel underwhelmed, because the romance ends so abruptly and without resolution. Finally, mystery junkies may feel overwhelmed by technical chapters that contribute nothing to the action.
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