The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession
The Bookman’s Tale is the sort of book I have trouble resisting. Hopping back and forth through time periods to solve some literary mystery? You can pretty much always sign me up. But though I basically enjoyed it, I didn’t love it quite so much as I thought I would. It’s fun, but I’m not really sure it brings anything new to the table.
Peter Byerly has been going through the motions of survival as he is overwhelmed with grief after the loss of his beloved wife Amanda. Holed up in his home in Wales (it was supposed to be their home, but they never got the chance to live there together), it’s all Peter can do to feed himself and take a shower once in awhile. He has a therapist’s list of things he’s supposed to do – like meet new people, or engage in his career as a rare book dealer and restorer – but so far he’s failed to do any of them. What finally pulls him out of his funk is a trip to a local bookstore, where to his amazement he finds an old watercolor of a woman who looks exactly like Amanda in an old book about Shakespeare forgeries. Of course it can’t be Amanda – it’s 1995, and the watercolor is clearly from the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, it’s the kick in the pants Peter needs to start really living again.
Peter’s search for answers about the picture soon coincides with another mystery. A neighbor calls Peter and asks for help in selling off old books from his estate. Peter finds several valuable volumes, including, incredibly, an old volume that seems to offer conclusive proof that Shakespeare was in fact Shakespeare (and not Christopher Marlowe, or some other more educated man). The books is a copy of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, a play upon which Shakespeare based A Winter’s Tale. The Pandosto is full of marginalia – all of it is Shakespeare’s handwriting. But it is real?
This question leads Peter on a chase through history, aided and abetted by a few other scholars, including a female one who arouses Peter’s interest. Peter meets Liz at a Watercolor Society meeting, and learns that she is actually working on a project about the same artist who painted the watercolor that looks so much like Amanda (he also learns that Liz knew of Amanda, who was herself an expert in Watercolors).
The Bookman’s Take shifts back and forth through time. We see Peter and Liz trying to solve their mysteries, which end up being the same mystery. We see Peter and Amanda meeting and falling in love in college in North Carolina, and we see Peter develop his passion for old books. We also follow the Pandosto through time and it’s various owners.
I tend to like books that skip and hop through time. Maybe too much. I was actually vetting this as a potential book club pick for next year, and I had to acknowledge that since my last three picks were all of the time-hopping variety, maybe I needed to go in another direction. That’s not to say the time-hopping is badly done, merely that it’s been done before, and it’s been done a lot recently.
I basically liked the book. I liked Peter and Amanda, and their love story is a sweet one. Amanda is a rich, quirky heiress (her family owns the college she and Peter both attend). Peter is a scholarship student whose parents are both drunks. We watch them fall in love and progress through their early years of marriage and career – until, of course tragedy strikes. Maybe it’s just as well that you begin the book knowing Amanda is dead, because finding that out at the end of the love story would be horribly depressing. The actual manner of her death is a mystery until the end of the book, but at least you know it’s coming.
I enjoyed The Bookman’s Tale while I was reading it. I liked following the mystery and I liked the characters. The only issue, really, is that it all seems a little derivative. When I looked again at the publishers blurb, I noticed that the book is touted as having “echoes of Possession and Shadow of the Wind – both of which I would have to say are better books, and both of which got there first. The Bookman’s Take is more along the lines of a comfort read for those who long for a little time-hopping and literary mystery solving.