Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

Title: First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen
Author: Charlie Lovett
Publisher:  Viking Adult (October 16 2014)
ISBN: 9780525427247
Pages: 320 pages
How We Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, romance
Our Rating: 2 cups


A thrilling literary mystery costarring Jane Austen from the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale.

Charlie Lovett first delighted readers with his New York Times bestselling debut, The Bookman’s Tale. Now, Lovett weaves another brilliantly imagined mystery, this time featuring one of English literature’s most popular and beloved authors: Jane Austen.

Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.

In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books.

Our Thoughts:
“What really gets me is these Austen fan girls. Running around pretending the sun rises and sets with some chick who wrote soap operas two hundred years ago.”

We love Jane Austen and are always open to books based on her novels. However, this book just did not make the cut.  Of course the prospect of uncovering a long-lost first draft of a Jane Austen manuscript is intriguing to any Austen fan, and even the idea of exploring possible influences on her work has such great potential. Unfortunately, we don’t feel that potential was realized effectively in this book.

Although the implication that Austen could have been a plagiarist is unsettling in itself, we found even more troublesome the premise that her work could have been so heavily prompted and directed by the 80-year-old Mansfield. Their friendship and like-minded appreciation of literature is believable, but the level of influence he is suggested to have had over every aspect of her writing simply is not. We feel this idea could have worked if employed a bit more subtly, but too much is attributed to Mansfield here.  It feels overdone, in our opinion, and makes it seem that without Mansfield’s guidance Austen’s writing would not have amounted to much. (He is an entirely fictional character, by the way, which the author explains in his note at the end of the book.)

The modern day protagonist, Sophie, is a bit of a frustrating character. While likeable enough, she is quite inconsistent – exceptionally smart and insightful one minute but thoroughly dim-witted the next. The 'love triangle' never really worked for us, and when Sophie ignores her better judgement and gut instincts merely on the basis of good sex, we found ourselves rolling our eyes and had to exercise considerable restraint to keep from screaming at the pages! 

We did, however, enjoy the humor of the opening chapters:

 “I don't like Dickens.”

“How can you not like Dickens?”

 “All that poverty. It depresses me. At least Austen's heroines end up in nice big houses.”

But when Eric disappears, for the majority of the book, so too does the humor walk out the door and ridiculousness walk in.

Sophie’s interactions with her beloved Uncle Bertram are quite touching though, and there are many aspects of their discussions that are sure to resonate with bibliophiles. We particularly appreciated the descriptions of how book-lovers feel about books: 

“A good book is like a good friend. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. When you first get to know it, it will give you excitement and adventure, and years later it will provide you with comfort and familiarity.” 

The Jane Austen sections were less engaging even though all their actions and dialogue appear to be accurate for the period.

This was a quick read, and despite any frustrations, the mystery did hold our interest enough to follow it through to its conclusion, but the ending wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, and includes some pretty improbable events.

By comparison, we found the historical intrigue and controversy of Lovett’s first novel, The Bookman's Tale, to be far more engaging, and the emotional struggles of its protagonist more authentic and compelling. His second historical literary mystery just was not our cup of tea. Overall it could be stated that it was a pleasant tale but lacking in so many ways as to make it somewhat bland and superficial at times.

Our Rating:
This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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