Charlie Lovett’s best-selling debut, “The Bookman’s Tale,” was an old-fashioned suspenseful romp spanning centuries and continents and peppered with romance, skulduggery, forgery and murder, all driven by one of the enduring questions of literary scholarship: Was Shakespeare truly the author of his own plays?
The second time around, Lovett has followed much the same formula. In “First Impressions,” his subject is Jane Austen, and as before, his story weaves together both past and present, fact and fiction, in pursuit of a secret that threatens to turn the literary world upside down.
In 1796, a young and yet unpublished Austen is working on a novel she has tentatively titled “Elinor and Marianne” when she meets an octogenarian cleric, Richard Mansfield, with whom she develops a deep friendship. Mansfield, a champion and admirer of Austen’s writing, has written a book that he wishes to rework for a second printing; Austen is his eager collaborator.
Meanwhile, in 21st-century London, obsessive Austenite and bibliophile Sophie Collingwood takes a job in an antiquarian bookshop. Her uncle has died in suspicious circumstances, and his book collection, which he promised to Sophie, has been sold to meet his debts. Sophie hopes to recover at least some of the missing volumes, but when not one but two customers contact her searching for a second edition of Mansfield’s “Little Book of Allegorical Stories,” she finds herself instead investigating why an inconsequential and all-but-forgotten book of sermons might drive a man to commit murder.
No doubt that “Austen fangirls,” as one of Lovett’s characters dismissively dubs them, will fall on this novel with all the fervor that has turned their heroine into a multimillion-dollar brand in the past 20 years. It is unlikely to trouble them that Lovett’s Austen is less a portrait of the writer than a medley of her greatest hits. Unencumbered by much in the way of plot, Austen and Mansfield spend most of their chapters discussing her work, sketching out with enviable ease several of the most famous parts of her novels, while a series of imagined letters provides an extensive reprise of the best-loved passages of “Pride and Prejudice.”
Jump forward to modern-day London, Sophie is entangled in a mystery — and a life — that owes a good deal more to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple than to Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta. Sophie’s sister may work for an online advertising company, but Sophie dwells in a nostalgic parallel universe where people still write letters and where research involves rummaging through dusty archives, a world where first kisses (strictly no tongues) make bookish girls see “fireworks” and shock causes them to fall “to the floor in a faint.” A world in which, murder or no murder, nothing matters more than Jane Austen’s reputation.
Lovett’s characterization is wooden, his plot alternately predictable and faintly preposterous. Even when the cardboard villain unmasks himself and guns are waved around, the novel remains as nerve-wracking as a warm English scone. But, for all that, “First Impressions” possesses a certain charm. Lovett is himself a onetime antiquarian bookseller and ardent bibliophile. This novel is, at its heart, a love letter to fiction — not just for its writers, but also for its readers — and it’s infused with his unstinting passion for books. It is a passion only the most determinedly churlish could entirely resist.
Clark’s most recent novel is “Beautiful Lies.”
By Charlie Lovett
Viking. 308 pp. $27.95