The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett is difficult to categorize. It’s a book about books, historical fiction based on fact, a romance, and a who-dun-it. While it was difficult to stick in a certain genre, it was even more difficult to put down. The twists, insights into history, and compelling characters had me taking this book everywhere just so that I could see what would happen next.
Peter Byerly is a socially awkward college student working in the rare book department at Ridgefield University in North Carolina. He spends his days meticulously restoring old books, and hoping one day he will make a rare book discovery that might catch the attention of the world. Peter, who comes from a less than stellar family, is content to form working relationships with his colleagues, but is not interested in any other social interactions until he sees Amanda, another young student in the library. He is smitten and she becomes the love of his life.
Fast-forward six years, and Peter is a widower. The reader has no idea what has happened to Amanda at this point, but Peter is devastated. In his intense grief, he retreats to a cottage in the Oxfordshire village of Kingham. It is there that he visits an old bookshop, and in a startling coincidence, he finds a postcard that has a watercolor portrait of a woman who appears to be his wife. Due to its age, it cannot possibly be Amanda, but it sets Peter off on a quest to find out where it came from.
In addition to this mystery, Peter is also tapped to analyze some historical documents, including a book called Pandosto. Pandosto could be the most important literary discovery in years. If it is authenticated, it could prove that William Shakespeare wrote all of the plays attributed to him, and it could silence those who believe that Christopher Marlowe or another Shakespeare contemporary could have written his works. While it seems that rare book analysis is harmless, it is true that Pandosto, properly authenticated, could be worth millions—and some would be ready to kill for it.
The Bookman’s Tale is told in three alternating settings. In the first, we see Peter and Amanda’s relationship developing while they are both in college. In the second, we see Peter recovering from her death and trying to solve the mystery of Pandosto’s history. In the third, we are taken back in time and we travel with Pandosto from owner to owner. These shifting narratives were not confusing or awkward. They are all clearly identified and distinct. Each was well done and enjoyable.
I learned quite a bit about Shakespeare and rare books while reading The Bookman’s Tale, but that is not to say that it was at all boring. It kept me guessing and turning the pages. While the mystery of Pandosto’s origins was the far more interesting to me, it was not the only mystery in the pages. How did Amanda die? Who would kill for Pandosto? How did the postcard come to be?
I enjoyed the main character, Peter, and I would hope that he would have more adventures in the rare book world. Perhaps his wife, Amanda, (who serves as sort of a quasi spirit guide) could also have a place in a future book. The Bookman’s Tale is a well written, involving example of historical fiction. Recommended!
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina