First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love,
and Jane Austen,
and Jane Austen,
by Charlie Lovett
NY: Viking, 2014
On sale October 20, 2014
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 hand.
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 the novel.
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-century 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 both.
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 endless.
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