It’s common in reviews to praise a sequel by saying that it stands on its own; that a reader needn’t have read, say, “Tarzan of the Apes” to enjoy any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s many other Tarzan novels. “The Lost Prince,” however, is that most impudent of literary specimens: a sequel that makes no sense unless you’ve read its predecessor. Indeed, after thrashing my way through the first 10 chapters of “The Lost Prince,” I went back and reread “The Little Book,” which I’d enthusiasticallyreviewed in 2008 and remembered in the general way that one remembers an entertaining but not life-changing book. Be forewarned: General recollection is not enough. Unless you can recall the complex plot of “The Little Book” with the acuity of a PhD candidate bracing for her oral exams, “The Lost Prince” will be as intelligible as Cheetah reciting Shakespeare.
Here, for fans and novices alike, is the essential back story: In 2008, a retired English teacher and headmaster named Selden Edwards brought out a charming first novel called “The Little Book.” Edwards had been working on his ornate opus for more than 30years, and — in the best ways possible — it showed. The story was as jam-packed as a sacher torte with the art, music, science and politics of fin-de-siecle Vienna, where it was (mostly) set. The novel chronicled the adventures of Wheeler Burden, a late-20th-century rock musician turned accidental time traveler, who finds himself in analysis with Freud, discovers Mahler, hunts down a pre-pubescent Adolf Hitler, and falls in love with a sexually magnetic young woman who turns out to be (spoiler alert!) his own grandmother.
“The Lost Prince” opens on the 1918 memorial service of a beloved teacher and then boomerangs back to 1898 to focus on the dilemma of Wheeler’s grandmother, the beautiful Eleanor Burden, who’s just returned from Vienna to her native Boston. Among other souvenirs of her Viennese escapades, Eleanor has brought back a journal that predicts many of the major events, most of them tragic, of the 20th century. The journal also spells out exactly what Eleanor must do to ensure that her future grandson, Wheeler, will be born and then develop to precisely the point where he can travel back in time to meet his grandmother, once again, in fin-de-siecle Vienna.
The loop-de-loop plot of “The Little Book” never grew tiresome because Wheeler was a sharp-eyed and wry hero. (The comic detail that stayed with me from my first reading was when he hit upon a scheme to make money in 19th-century Vienna by inventing a wooden prototype for the Frisbee!) “The Lost Prince” is also ingeniously plot-driven: Each chapter constitutes a polished short story in which Eleanor pulls off some near-impossible task to bend current events to the dictates of the journal. Among other triumphs, Eleanor makes a killing in the stock market, saves a VIP from boarding the Titanic, arranges for Freud and Jung to visit America in 1909, debates free will vs. destiny with William James, enjoys a brief but fruitful romantic affair, and wanders the desolate landscape of post-World War I Europe, searching for a missing loved one. She adroitly pulls off this double life while keeping her dunderhead of a banker husband in the dark.
But Eleanor is such a bland character that her adventures have all the pizazz of a chaperoned Grand Tour. Listen, for instance, to this stiff conversation that takes place when Eleanor awakens from a fever and realizes that she and her daughters have survived the 1918 flu pandemic;
“ ‘Mother!’ the older of the two [girls] said, leaping to her feet. She then exclaimed, ‘You are well!’ ”
“ ‘Oh, Susan!’ burst out of her, and Eleanor’s two daughters rushed to her and buried themselves in their mother’s arms and the folds of her nightdress. ‘You are saved,’ the mother said with what little energy she could call up, joy and relief on her face. ‘We have survived after all.’ ”
Granted, Eleanor is probably dehydrated, but this is about as lively as the dialogue ever gets in “The Lost Prince.” With such a flat character as our guide, even a Strauss waltz — played by Johann Strauss himself — sounds like Muzak.
“The Lost Prince” takes readers up to the aftermath of World War I. There are plenty of pages devoted to the rest of the 20th century left in Eleanor’s prescient journal. Ergo, another sequel may be brewing. Devotees of Edwards’s ever-expanding time-travel saga are advised to start brushing up now on all those bedeviling background details.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
On Monday at 7 p.m., Selden Edwards will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919.
THE LOST PRINCE
By Selden Edwards
Dutton. 434 pp. $26.95