The Secret of Lost Things

A literary mystery can be just the thing you need, particularly when you're sick and stuck at home over the weekend as I was, so it was delightful to find The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay on a Barnes & Noble table... A young redhead named Rosemary just starting her life in Manhattan by working at a bookstore and becoming involved in a secret that involves a lost Melville novel? Naturally, I purchased it on the spot.

But I'm sorry to say that there was one scene that seemed to rather exemplify the whole experience of reading this novel for me... and my summary is not for the faint of heart, so kids, turn back now. The scene is this: an ailing albino with an obsessive interest in the narrator manages (without any arm-twisting or pressure) to get her alone in the rare books room, where he ejaculates into her hand and then assumes an unearned intimacy to their relationship and conversation... shortly before the speedy conclusion to the story.

Granted, the reading of this book was a much less sticky situation, and to be fair, Rosemary/we didn't put up a struggle when she/we found ourselves being groped by our albino manager/reading this book. He asked if she was okay and then suggested that she might be "unsatisfied." I latched onto this word and found it hard to forget as the book spiralled into its quick conclusion. As the reader, I too felt unsatisfied (and not because of a poor sex scene). Perhaps "unsatisfied" isn't even the right word... "disappointed" is a better fit. The book didn't quite build up my sense of anticipation to make "unsatisfied" a qualifiable adjective for my feelings at the end of what was supposed to be a literary mystery.

I was disappointed on two levels... one, that the story had all the intriguing details and none of the complicated interconnectedness that one usually finds in a mystery... and two, that the writing was better than the tale being told and so the author's potential remained buried.

I found the tale at the heart of this novel a great draw in the beginning and a great let-down at the end. As a bibliophile, how could I really turn away from a story like this? A missing Melville novel and a young woman working in a labyrinthine bookstore? It taps into some daydream that literate young women have, kept on the shelf besides the one where we open a book store in a small town. The cast of characters seemed just odd enough for a literary mystery (aside from the open-hearted pre-operative transsexual named Pearl with her wealthy boyfriend)... mostly comprised of older men with various issues (which includes the aforementioned albino manager). In addition, the author brought a wealth of knowledge to the table about various subjects with the tantalizing idea that there might be a more fantastic secret to unearth. All the elements were there, why didn't it work?

Well, partially because the author wasn't trying to write The DaVinci Code or The Thirteenth Tale... the author ultimately decided to write about loss, whereas the book jacket promised adventure. Things did not connect, they remained in their own worlds and Rosemary just did her best to absorb all this information about loss and pain and frustration. One person's past did not converge with another's, the Melville novel did not turn up, the albino died. You can't blame this on the hype of marketing, because for a time, even Hay/Rosemary is caught up in research and is ducking behind bookshelves to eavesdrop on conversations. Perhaps Hay thought she was writing something more of a mystery before being unable to find a conclusion for that kind of story. In the usual literary mystery, all of these characters and detailed subjects should have been interwoven in a complex thread that made the main character realize everything was connected... but no. They weren't. All that Hay could come up with on this front was the knowledge that everyone was hungry for something they lost or never had... and each person dealt with this pain in a different way.

Putting aside my issues with the story (though really, by throwing in an albino, you're already on your way down, I don't care what kind of allusions you're making to Moby Dick), I should say that my true disappointment was with a writer who set us up with the promise of a literary mystery, allusions to other intriguing topics, and complicated characters... but then leaves us... unsatisfied.

Our young narrator cannot be to blame, but because of the coming-of-age factor, you knew from the get-go that nothing else would be solved, nothing would be revealed, and the lost thing that we would mourn was the chance an editor let go to help shape a better novel by getting the author to whittle down the scope a bit. I'm not asking to regain The Isle of the Cross or anything, but Rosemary was never going to see a bigger picture when she was too distracted by the stories around her. Topics like the Argentinian Dirty War are practically thrown in for color, illustrating what real loss is as a mother mourns her son who disappeared. A bigger, unifying idea like a lost novel was never going to come to anything. In the end, I felt like each character and topic was an unfinished short story that should have been explored more fully on its own, but instead we're left with blank pages instead of a Melville novel.

On that note, though, I might say that all is not lost in the reading of this novel. I did enjoy this author's writing style and as a result, I would be willing to read her work again. For all my quibbling between "unsatisfied" and "disappointed," if I cared enough to write out my frustrations with the book, Hay must have done something right, if only draw me in with the promise of her story and style. If you are a person who likes books about books, then you should at least enjoy part of this novel... though I hope that Sheridan Hay's next endeavor does not leave me with the impression that an uncomfortable sexual encounter can be illustrative of my encounter with her book as a whole.

No comments: