First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love,
and Jane Austen,
Like a wary horse led toward a new and unfamiliar horse
trailer – i.e., suspiciously, nervously -- that’s how I approach modern fiction
claiming inspiration from Jane Austen’s work. My mind is not closed but is
definitely guarded. At the same time, I’m also prepared to be won over. That’s
it, though: I’ll be passing judgment on every page with a standard set 200
years ago by Jane Austen herself. How could it be otherwise?
Charlie Lovett did not win me over on the first page or even
in the first chapter of First Impressions.
I found fault with his adjectives and even his verbs.
Her first impression was that he
was the picture of gloom—dressed in shabby clerical garb, a dark look on his
crinkled face, doubtless a volume of dusty sermons clutched in his ancient
But Jane Austen herself is the main character in that and every
other chapter, so Lovett has given himself quite a challenge. Attempting to
imitate Jane Austen! It is all too easy for words to fail: he who attempts and
she who critiques had best tread carefully here. And so I read on.
After only four pages of his fictional Jane and her
fictional and purely invented friend and mentor, our modern author shifts to
the present day, introducing us to young Sophie Collingwood, and you’d think
Sophie would seem easier to accept than first-chapter Jane, but maybe I’d allowed
my skepticism to deepen over the previous four pages, because I did not
immediately cotton to Sophie, either. Reading ostentatiously as she walked
along, looking down on the strange young man for being American and casually
dressed but then speaking to him of her father in a manner seemingly designed
to invite the development of a relationship -- that is Sophie as we first meet
her. “Sophie rolled her eyes. ‘He likes to shoot things.’” Is she trying to
give Eric the brush-off or encourage revelations? Maybe she’s not sure herself,
and maybe our first impression of Sophie will not be a lasting impression.
Back to Hampshire, 1796, in the third chapter, the Reverend
Mr. Richard Mansfield gives the fictional Jane the first suggestion of many to
follow as to the development of a story she has in progress.
“I only felt that if Sir John
Middleton were a more affable sort – the type to throw parties or host picnics
– your younger characters might be thrown together with more frequency.”
“I confess I had not yet given much
thought to the character of Sir John,” said Jane. “But I think you are right.
And it should not take much rewriting to set him on a course to host picnics
and balls aplenty.”
Now the horse is asked to walk up the ramp to the trailer,
and this horse plants hooves squarely on solid earth and digs in! Stiff legs, ears laid
back! Jane Austen needing literary guidance from an older man? One whose own
writing is pedestrian in the extreme? What kind of liberties are being taken
here with one of my favorite writers of all time?
The structure of First Impressions is two stories, however, one historical fiction and
the other modern mystery. Eventually the two will intertwine. And fortunately
my second impression of Sophie was more favorable than the first, the revised
view beginning where Lovett starts cashing in the promise of “old books” in his
subtitle. Sophie’s Uncle Bertram, I learn to my great delight, was a book
collector. Soon Sophie finds a job in a secondhand bookshop! She gets to know a
customer whose passion is early printing, and this intrigues her (though she’s
never been interested in the printing aspect of books before), as her family is
descended from an early English printer. She learns to question her own first
impressions of everyone and everything.
There is a lot in this book for bibliophiles. My part-time
bookstore helper, Bruce, will love the beginning of this chapter (page 79):
Almost without thinking ... Sophie
had walked to Cecil Court, a short pedestrian lane between Charing Cross Road
and St. Martin’s Lane that was lined on both sides with bookshops. Cecil Court,
with its rows of tall glass windows framed by green painted woodwork and filled
with displays of every type of book imaginable, was the heart of London’s
secondhand book trade. The world seemed to move more slowly here....
And Sophie’s Uncle Bertram, expounding to her on the beauty
of rare books:
“If you mail a rare stamp it
becomes worthless. If you drink a bottle of rare wine, you’re left with some
recycling. But if you read a rare book it’s still there, it’s still valuable,
and it’s achieved the full measure of its being. A book is to be read, whether
it’s worth five pounds or five thousands pounds.”
Because that’s the kind of collector Bertram was, a reader
rather than a trophy hunter. It’s impossible not to love him, so I was grateful
to have so many encounters with him in flashbacks, despite his death early in
Death? Uncle Bertram? Did he fall, or was he pushed? Is
Sophie’s imagination running away with her, as did young Catherine Morland’s in
Austen’s Northanger Abbey?
Whatever will be discovered later on, Sophie’s impression
that Uncle Bertram’s death is suspicious constitutes a mystery for her. The
second mystery has to do with a couple of very specific 18th
books and the relationship between the fictional Jane Austen (remember, this is
a novel Lovett has written) and her aged mentor. Sophie is determined to solve
Jane’s mentor, Richard Mansfield, is mirrored in Sophie’s
life by her Uncle Bertram and later, in lesser fashion, by the bookseller,
Gusty Boxhill. Sophie’s loving relationship with her sister Victoria mirrors
that of Jane and Cassandra. Eric and Winston, Sophie’s “suitors,” seem to have
no parallel in the fictional Jane Austen’s story. Are we to believe and trust
either one of them, or do the older men hold all the truth and devotion cards?
For me, the modern chapters of this book worked better than
those with Jane Austen, although I enjoyed brief two-century-old glimpses of the fictional printer. As for the mysteries, they felt contrived, and I could have
done without them, whereas the world of old books, bookshops, bookselling,
printing history, and primary source research had me spellbound. But this is,
as always, a subjective response: I am a bookseller, and I live in a world of
books. It’s also no small matter to me when a writer undertakes to re-invent
one of my favorite authors.
The bottom line, though, is that First Impressions is an entertaining book and makes enjoyable reading.
It will be irresistible to Austen fans and bibliophiles, and mystery readers
and book club members will enjoy it, as well. The discussion possibilities are
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