With allusions to canonical romantic texts like Much Ado About Nothing and Pride and Prejudice and homages to more recent YA successes like John Green’s Looking for Alaska (Dutton Juvenile, 2005) and Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything (Delacorte Books, 2015) there’s much to be found in Laura Taylor Namey’s debut, Library of Lost Things (2019).
This relatable, well-paced novel offers up the story of a young woman forced to revise her core relationships and re-write herself from a reclusive caretaker of her hoarder mother to sentient actor in her own life. She has to learn to make herself able to love without shame.
Contrasted with the sunny San Diego setting and the tittering banter she shares with her bestie, Darcy Wells ekes-out a tense existence in the shadow of her mother’s addiction to material objects:
Namey dunks us into Darcy’s mother’s compulsive mindset for just long enough to impart the claustrophobia Darcy’s had to endure. To maintain a sense of control, Darcy immerses herself in the safety of literature, learning from classic stories how to navigate social contexts and, on occasion, to deceive.
But like the stacks of assorted China her mother keeps, Darcy’s precarious world is susceptible to tremors from minor incidents. A new busy-bodied apartment manager is snooping around their carefully secured unit, sure to evict them were he to discover the rats-nest of junk heaped inside. Meanwhile, unpaid bills are piling up and Darcy’s grandmother intrudes as a conditional benefactor.
Rescuing Darcy from these dour circumstances is Darcy’s feisty BFF, Marisol—Latina fashionista and comic relief. With almost diurnal regularity, Marisol wrenches Darcy free from her mother’s suffocating apartment. Accompanying Marisol on her capers eventually lands Darcy in a situation in which she must either demure or step into the limelight to display her talents.
If this quandary wasn’t enough, Darcy’s tranquil bookstore job is compromised by Asher, a beautifully broken boy, one year her senior, who’s taken an interest in her. Though Asher is technically spoken for by the class gossip queen, he spotlights attention on Darcy. His affections, along with the opportunities presented through Marisol, demand Darcy to reconsider her survival strategy of merely reading exciting stories.
With the romance and friendship arcs as needles, Namey skillfully sews Darcy’s character into full realization. The novel seams together elements from YA and Chick-lit genres and does so in tight chapters, each with a catchy subtitle and clever epigraph which anticipate the chapter’s action.
Midway through the book, a character begins commenting on a text Darcy is reading, adding situational intrigue and revealing Namey’s admirable narratorial control as well as her characters’ depth. The thorny potential words have in these teenagers’ lives, along with how quotidian occurrences can rattle us out of complaisance, make the novel a life-like enough space to get lost in.
Unfortunately, the work falls prey to certain genre trappings: campy dialogue, disengagement from physical and historical setting, an over-abundance of self-congratulatory winks between characters, and side characters who try to charm, but occasionally annoy. Marisol, “shaped like a flame” (15), is a dazzling live-wire on each page, but at times she’s too solicitous and sparkly with on-the-fly brilliance.
Asher, for his part, is implausibly gallant as a 19-year-old. In general, Namey’s teens are inexplicably decorous; chaste yet chic in a way that smacks of over-stylization. Furthermore, the titillating romance between these beautiful, intelligent teenagers is often overdone. Perhaps a bigger critique would be in how the core conflict between the mentally ill mother and conflicted daughter is interrupted by the romance and friendship subplots.
Ultimately though, Namey winds everything back to Darcy’s relationship with her mother. Throughout the novel filled with young people sharing happy moments, the mother character lurks in a backroom like Rochester’s wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. An erroneous critique would label the mother character as vapid, but Andrea Wells is necessarily diminutive, as she’s buried her once vibrant personality beneath her expanding pile of things, rendering her a mere shade.
In contrast, Darcy approaches her penultimate rite of passage using her greatest asset: her penchant for the beautiful language of literature. But as the story arches towards its climax, the written word, Darcy’s Excalibur, loses its sharpness and she must proceed into deeper relationships with others and her mother. Her only protection is truth of who she really is. The end effect is surprising and poignant as Darcy starts acting as her own main character under her own direction to reshape her story into one she can live with.
What’s more, Library of Lost Things uses mental illness in a family member as more than just a plot mover, but as a force akin to literature: a reflector on human frailty and resilience. In doing so, the book is an invitation to make room in our lives for surprises in ourselves and those we try to love.