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The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

Carol Deptolla
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

Bookish The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay keeps the pages turning.

The Secret of Lost Things

Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 038551848X
Author: Sheridan Hay
Price: $23.95
Length: 354
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-03

Every book lover knows there's an entire universe to be found inside a book and, by extension, inside a bookstore. It's a universe that, if we're lucky, is a place both peculiar and comfortable.

The Secret of Lost Things, the debut novel by Sheridan Hay that revolves around a bookstore, conjures such a universe, one that any reader would be glad to inhabit and sorry to see end.

Call her Rosemary Savage. The 18-year-old Tasmanian compares herself to Ishmael of Moby-Dick fame: She's an orphan in exile, only she's taken Ishmael's journey in reverse, landing in New York to start life anew.

All alone, her name known to no one, Rosemary wanders Manhattan and stumbles across a used- and rare-book store, the Arcade, a virtual repository of lost things to match her losses so early in life. Naturally, she feels at home there. Rosemary is hired by owner George Pike, a throwback who refers to himself in the third person and makes clear that theft will not be tolerated at his store.

Like Ishmael, Rosemary finds her own albino, store manager Walter Geist: "I had the fleeting fantasy that this man was what someone would look like if they'd been born inside the Arcade, never having left its dim confines. Pigment would disappear and eyesight would be ruined beneath the weak light, until one lay passively like a flounder on the ocean floor."

Her other co-workers, as diverse as Ishmael's crewmates, include the unattainable Oscar Jarno, a dressmaker's son whose expertise is non-fiction and fabric, a font of knowledge who scribbles notes of his wide-ranging research in an ever-present notebook; Rosemary considers him her counterpart. There's Arthur Pick, an Englishman who's in charge of the art section; Bruno Gurvich, a Ukrainian, and Jack Conway, an Irishman, who sort the paperbacks, considered the least of the books in the overstuffed store; and the courtly overseer of the rare-book room, Robert Mitchell, whom Rosemary regards as the father she never knew.

Pearl Baird, the store's transsexual cashier who longs to become an opera singer, becomes one of Rosemary's two close friends. The other is Lillian La Paco, an Argentinian who is a desk clerk at the women's hotel where Rosemary stays and who carries her own heavy burden of loss. The women help Rosemary through her roughest patches and give her someone to worry about, in lieu of blood relations.

Rosemary soon becomes entwined in literary intrigue involving a manuscript of Herman Melville's lost and thus quite valuable novel, The Isle of the Cross. Much is to be gained for those involved, and much stands to be lost, too.

Hay's characters and places, from a hat shop in Tasmania to the overstuffed bookstore in New York that calls to mind the Strand, are finely and fully rendered. Like any great bookstore, this is a novel the reader doesn't want to leave.

Hay brings a universe-in-a-book to life for the reader in this novel of loss and freedom, and the juncture of the two.

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