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The Secret of Lost Thingsby Sheridan Hay
Synopses & Reviews
A missing manuscript
A young woman's voyage of discovery
And the curious bookshop where it all begins...
In this charming novel about the eccentricities and passions of booksellers and collectors, a captivating young Australian woman takes a job at a vast, chaotic emporium of used and rare books in New York City and finds herself caught up in the search for a lost Melville manuscript.
Eighteen years old and completely alone, Rosemary arrives in New York from Tasmania with little more than her love of books and an eagerness to explore the city she's read so much about. She begins her memorable search for independence with appealing enthusiasm, and the moment she steps into the Arcade bookstore, she knows she has found a home. The gruff owner, Mr. Pike, gives her a job sorting through huge piles of books and helping the rest of the staff — a group as odd and idiosyncratic as the characters in a Dickens novel. There's Pearl, the loving, motherly transsexual who runs the cash register; Oscar, who organizes the nonfiction section and shares his extensive, eclectic knowledge with Rosemary, but furiously rejects her attempts at a more personal relationship; and Arthur Pick, who supervises the art section and demonstrates a particular interest in photography books featuring naked men.
The store manager, Walter Geist, is an albino, a lonely figure even within the world of the Arcade. When Walter's eyesight begins to fail, Rosemary becomes his assistant. And so it is Rosemary who first reads the letter from someone seeking to "place" a lost manuscript by Herman Melville. Mentioned in Melville's personal correspondence but never published, the work is of inestimable value, and proof of its existence brings the simmering ambitions and rivalries of the Arcade staff to a boiling point.
Including actual correspondence by Melville, The Secret of Lost Things is at once a literary adventure that captures the excitement of discovering a long-lost manuscript by a towering American writer and an evocative portrait of life in a surprisingly colorful bookstore.
"Hay's debut has all the elements of a literary thriller, but they don't quite come together. Ariving in New York from Tasmania with $300, her mother's ashes and a love of reading, 18-year-old Rosemary Savage finds work in the Arcade Bookshop, a huge, labyrinthine place that features everything from overstock to rare books. In its physicality, the store greatly resembles New York's Strand (where Hay worked), and its requisite assortment of intriguing bookish oddballs includes autocratic owner George Pike and his albino assistant, Walter Geist. Rosemary is suspicious and worried when Walter enlists Rosemary's help to respond to an anonymous request to sell a hand-written version of Herman Melville's lost Isle of the Cross (a novel that in fact existed but disappeared after Melville's publisher rejected it). She confides in Oscar (the attractive, emotionally unavailable nonfiction specialist), which only hastens the deal's momentum toward disaster. Hay does a good job with innocent, intelligent Rosemary's attempts to deal with sinister doings, and methodically imagines the evolution and content of Melville's novel (which features a woman abandoned much like Rosemary's mother). Hay also ably captures Rosemary's nostalgic memories of Tasmania. The three narratives-intrigue, Melville, Tasmania-prove so different, however, that recurring themes of loss and abandonment fail to tie them together." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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." Reviewed by James A. Miller, professor of English and American studies and chair of the American Studies Department at the George Washington UniversityDonna Rifkind, who reviews fiction frequently for The Washington Post, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A tribute to the book-obsessed that's unfortunately cast with stereotypes." Kirkus Reviews
"Book lovers will enjoy the subtle literary threads." Charlotte Observer
"The Secret of Lost Things as a whole does not equal its too-separate parts." San Francisco Chronicle
Based on actual letters from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, THE SECRET OF LOST THINGS is at once a literary adventure that captures the excitement of discovering a long-lost manuscript by a towering American writer, and an evocative portrait of life in a bookstore.
About the Author
Sheridan Hay worked in bookstores and in trade publishing both in her native Australia and in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington, and has lived in New York for twenty years.
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