Object of Desire

By Donna Rifkind,
who reviews fiction frequently for The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 13, 2007


By Sheridan Hay

Doubleday. 354 pp. $23.95

An uneasy blend of mystery, love story and literary history, Sheridan Hay's first novel aspires to the sophistication of scholarly romances such as A.S. Byatt's "Possession" (1990) or Martha Cooley's "The Archivist" (1998). Like Hay's, those genre-mixing novels played at merging far-flung elements -- the past with the present, fiction with fact, contemporary researchers with long-buried texts of dead authors -- but with far greater finesse.

"The Secret of Lost Things" follows the fortunes of 18-year-old Rosemary Savage, tall and red-haired, freshly transplanted to New York from her native Tasmania after her mother's death, with the identity of her father unknown. Wasting no time upon arriving in Manhattan, Rosemary lands a job at the Arcade, the city's largest secondhand bookstore. Readers might recognize the Arcade as an imaginative facsimile of the Strand, the enormous 80-year-old institution at Broadway and 12th Street, where Hay herself once worked.

Employed as a "floater" among the Arcade's many sections, Rosemary quickly acquaints herself with the gaggle of misfits who run the place. There's the owner, George Pike, an irritable miser who conducts business on a raised platform and speaks in an orotund shout, always referring to himself in the third person. There is the oversize idler Arthur, who spends much of his day examining volumes of photographs of naked men; Oscar, a fussy dilettante who perches on a stool, forever writing in a mysterious notebook; and the store manager, Walter Geist, a nearly blind, vaguely malevolent albino for whom Rosemary develops a simultaneous fascination and repulsion.

It's always welcome news when a novel promises abundant displays of eccentricity. But with the exception of the cashier, an opera-singing preoperative transsexual named Pearl, and the avuncular rare-books specialist Mr. Mitchell, this bunch turns out to be a disappointingly dour gallery of grotesques. Geist in particular is a limp and spongy creature, reminding Rosemary of "a flounder on the ocean floor" and "a crustacean drying outside its shell" -- images that don't suggest enough vigor for the acts of villainy and sexual ardor that the book's plot will require from him.

That plot, which takes nearly 200 pages to get up to speed, involves the purported reappearance of a lost novel called "The Isle of the Cross" by Herman Melville, the 19th-century literary master of all things maritime and leviathan. When word gets around that Geist has received a letter from a mysterious figure who's interested in selling the valuable work -- which Melville assumed was lost in a fire in 1853 after being rejected by his publisher -- the hunt is on for the great white manuscript.

Having just read "Moby-Dick" and decided that Melville is her favorite author, Rosemary spends a lot of time in the library copying pertinent correspondence between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, his friend and fellow novelist. (All the historical details Hay provides about "The Isle of the Cross" are true.) Rosemary's interest, however, is not purely scholarly. She is nurturing a crush on the poetic but deceitful Oscar, who's trying to get his hands on the manuscript, and hopes that any help she can give him will win his affection.

Geist also has a more personal than intellectual interest in "The Isle of the Cross." Panicked by the debilitating effects of his albinism, he has concocted a plan to acquire the manuscript and sell it to a collector. He's convinced the windfall will be large enough for him to retire comfortably and enough to persuade Rosemary, for whom he's developed an obsessive infatuation, to look after his various physical needs.

Hay makes some strenuous demands of her readers here, not least in asking them to believe that a pretty 18-year-old girl would fall for someone as unlikable as Oscar, or tolerate, even briefly, the advances of so thoroughly repellent a figure as Geist. (And tolerate them she does.) Yet the internal and external loathsomeness of nearly every main character -- in what is, at its heart, a story about bartering for love -- is far from the book's least tolerable aspect. Nor is it the clumsy dialogue, the stagy climax, the humorlessness or the repetitive exposition, all of which can be forgiven as first-novel growing pains.

What's most insufficient about "The Secret of Lost Things" is that, as its title suggests, the tale only comes alive when it concerns itself with books as things, as objects for sale. There is far too much discussion about their provenance and acquisition and not enough convincing evidence of the intangible power of literature -- of the vital partnership between a writer and a reader that can't be bought or traded or even fully shared. Hay depicts the Melville manuscript as a historical artifact, a coveted trophy, a love token, a collector's curio, even as a wishful chimera. But she never persuasively presents it as something we might actually want to read.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company