The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is a rich and incredibly sensuous story about books, love, and the equations that make up our lives.

Philip Masryk is a brilliant mathematician/investment consultant who often finds himself scribbling mathematical formulas to represent the interactions and events around him. While he finds this to generally be a helpful way of viewing the world, people often become variables that are hard to predict. He's been married twice and has two ex-step-children, in whose lives he still plays a very minor role, but the only constant in his life has been his friend and lover, a book-binder named Irma Arcuri. The book opens as Philip is notified of her disappearance and the fact that she has bequeathed to him her collection of 351 books, all of which she had bound herself and a few of which she has written. No one seems to believe that Irma is actually dead, simply that she has chosen to disappear from her life and perhaps embark on some other adventure, but Philip wants to find her and believes that the secret to doing so lies within his newly inherited library.

Philip's search spans literature and continents, though many of his revelations are found within the people that make up Philip's life. The narrative goes back and forth in time, concerned not only with Philip and Irma's relationship but with Philip and Irma's individual relationships with others... such as Philip's two ex-wives, his best friend, Philip's two ex-step-children, and perhaps even a woman Philip meets in a bar after Irma has already disappeared. Philip, who has not read much of anything contained within Irma's library, selects which book to read next in a very calculated manner, believing that Irma has planned this.

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is clearly an homage to literature and the role it plays in our lives. Bajo chooses a very intriguing mix of titles to highlight here (including Borges, Cervantes, Camus, Sebald, and others), and makes things all the more interesting when Philip realizes that in re-binding these books, Irma may have made adjustments to the text within, too. In addition to presenting something that treats books as precious touchstones in our lives, Bajo has also captured the sensual experience surrounding literature and the intimacy of sharing stories with another. This is a very sexual book and Bajo doesn't shy away from dealing with sex quite directly. I never found it to be too ridiculous, though... just quite prevalent. (It was so very sensual, in fact, that even though I usually pass books along to my mother, I told her that this was unsuitable for parents and if she wanted a copy, she'd have to go and get one herself. My significant other, however, has already been told to move this up to the top of his list.)

For a true book lover, it's hard to not find something deeply seductive about the allure of books. And when you add a beautiful and sexy woman into the mix... well... let's just say that I would have crumbled just as easily as any other of Irma's conquests. There are some truly beautiful passages and ideas being expressed... in addition to the steamy sex scenes mentioned above. There were a few flaws within the narrative and I'm not entirely sure that the ending left me satisfied, but as I believe this is Bajo's first novel, I consider myself quite impressed. Selections from Philip's reading have the habit of flowing into the text without too much notation, so the reader must keep on his or her toes to understand just which writer is responsible for what he/she is reading. There were moments when it came to Philip's relationship with his ex-step-children where I wasn't convinced of the storyline's necessity, or at least of its prominence, but nothing too severe. The only thing that truly irked me with this book was the fact that nearly all of the characters in the novel are runners... and Philip seems to run so often that I was convinced his heart would burst. Is it possible for someone to run that often every day and still stand? Let alone participate in all those sex scenes? Sure, he was raised by steeplechaser parents, but even so! I felt like quite a sedentary creature as Philip sprinted through towns in multiple countries, no matter his occasional complaints about getting older. It seemed excessive.

On the whole, I loved this novel -- when you find yourself as a reader being seduced by the main characters, it's hard not to connect with it. If you're looking for a luscious read and you're up to being challenged by a twisting and turning storyline, then I sincerely recommend a comfy chair beside a fire, a glass of wine, and this novel. You'll find it to be a pleasurable experience.

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