I picked up The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett at the library and had no idea it would be one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me of People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Her novel is about a book that was saved through many centuries by people of various religions and cultures who loved beautiful books. The Bookman’s Tale is a love story about books as valuable in themselves: their beauty, history, bindings, and covers. It is a novel of suspense and intrigue that traces both a literary mystery and a personal mystery down the centuries. I could not put it down!
Peter Byerly, a young antiquarian book dealer, leaves
North Carolina in 1995 for a cottage in Kingham, England, hoping to escape the grief of being suddenly widowed. He finds a book about Shakespearean forgeries in a small bookstore in Hay-on-Wye, and a painting falls from the pages. It is a Victorian watercolor of his recently deceased wife. How could this be? The painting appears to be from the late 1800s and she just died–young–in 1995. He searches for the answer and ends up in the literary hunt of a lifetime.
The novel moves back and forth seamlessly between three time periods with smooth plot connections. Lovett is an expert when it comes to structure and transitions.
In 1995 England, Peter is tracking down the Victorian
painting. In doing so, he stumbles onto yet another mystery about the identity of the writer of Shakespeare’s plays. [Yes, much debate has gone on over the centuries about that.] Peter finds a copy of Pandosto written by Robert Greene in the 1500s with notes in the margins by none other than the Bard himself. Shakespeare based his play, A Winter’s Tale, on Greene’s romance. If this copy of Greene’s work is authentic, Peter may have stumbled onto one of the greatest finds in literature: a connection proving that Shakespeare did, indeed, write the plays attributed to him. He becomes obsessed with proving the authenticity of the book.
In 1983, Peter and Amanda–his future wife–meet at a college in North Carolina. Peter is socially introverted, totally unsure of himself, but definite about his love of books. He works in the Special Collections area of the college library and learns how to mend sadly broken books. He loves every aspect of their history. The learning curve ensures that he will understand the worth of an antiquarian book that connects to Shakespeare. In these 1983 passages, Lovett details Peter and Amanda’s shy and unfolding love story and courtship. After her death, Amanda appears to Peter in brief moments, but the paranormal aspect of the plot is minor.
The third set of passages is from Southwark, London, in 1592. In these pages we see the robust drinking lives of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Robert
Greene, and Shakespeare himself. Peter follows these clues through an unscrupulous, fictional 1500’s bookseller, Bartholomew Harbottle, who is a link in the mystery of Pandosto and Shakespeare.
Before all is done, Peter chases the Pandosto manuscript and the painting through London, the countryside, tombs, and dark passages, trying to evade a present day murderer who is also searching for Pandosto. On his quest, Peter uncovers some truths about his own early life and also that of his wife.
The characters are vivid, the structure of the plot is amazing, and the focus never leaves the hunt. Lovett’s pacing is spot on and I had a tough time putting this book down. I found the ending a bit contrived, but the story was so exciting I could forgive Mr. Lovett for that.
If you are a book lover, a Shakespeare enthusiast, a reader, a book collector, or a mender of books, you will love The Bookman’s Tale.