The Library of Lost and Found
The Library of Lost and Found is one of those books that one takes out of the library for a weekend and then forgets entirely about by Monday. Consumed between bites of sandwich and sips of tea, it plays out in bland, unexciting, and predictable ways. The author shows some real flashes of talent in places, and her love of books is obvious throughout the novel, but there’s no spark of originality to make it catch fire.
Librarian Martha Storm is a smart, kind woman, but her introverted life has been stuck in stasis ever since she rejected the promise of marriage to stay in her hometown of Sandshift and shepherd her elderly parents to their graves. She is fascinated by books and takes no real notice of her personal happiness, living alone in what was once her parents’ house. When they died she began to overfill it with unfinished projects to comfort herself, and now it’s a cluttered mess. Her sister suggests that they sort it out someday, but the selfish Lilian busy with her own life and children but always ready to dump her responsibilities on Martha, never has the time for her. Instead, Martha makes lists of the ways she can help her neighbors and selflessly does chores for them in the hope that they will notice and praise her.
In her professional life, Martha’s so efficient and lives so thoroughly for the praise she gets, that people take blatant, willful advantage of her almost obsessive sense of devotion, to the point that they don’t bother to tell her when plans change and push their responsibilities onto her.
When a Valentine’s Day book-reading is cancelled and no one bothers to inform her, Martha trundles her way home and finds a book wrapped in brown paper and red ribbons left leaning against the doorjamb. Unwrapping the volume reveals a note from the owner of an antiquarian bookshop, telling her the book recently came into his possession, that he cannot sell it because of its poor condition, and that he believes that it belongs to her. The book is a volume of fairytales with a dedication from her grandmother, Zelda, whom Martha loved dearly and whose death under mysterious circumstances thirty years earlier became a family secret that her parents refused to talk about. What lights a fire under Martha is that the dedication is dated from 1985 – and her parents told her that Zelda died in 1982.
Years ago, Martha was once Zelda’s glorious girl and Zelda the linchpin of Martha’s hopes and dreams. She was the only person who supported her fantasy of becoming a writer, an activity that Martha hasn’t attempted for years. But Zelda was in constant conflict with Thomas, Martha’s cold, scolding, order-loving, traditionalist father, and the push-pull conflict between Thomas and Zelda often left Martha’s mother, Betty, caught between them. When forced to choose between Thomas and Zelda, Betty makes a mistake that will echo down the generations and leave Martha searching for a way to reach out and experience life before it’s too late. Soon she joins Owen, the much-married bookstore owner who connected her with Zelda’s history – who becomes a possible second chance at romance.
There are some things that are golden about The Library of Lost and Found; the way the author talks about books and glories in their existence and knows her authors is heartening. Martha is relatable, if too much of a doormat to really be believed, and her relationships with her mother, Zelda and Lilian are relatable or heartwarming. I liked her friendship with Owen, the elderly used bookstore owner who has also subsumed his life in the glory of literature. The flashback chapters about Thomas and Betty’s marriage are absorbing, cut from a different bolt of cloth than the central novel, truly fascinating in their kitchen sink bathos. The human relationships are what’s interesting about the book.
But it’s the extreme contrivance of its central plot that utterly slaughters The Library of Lost and Found. The only way the entire story functions is to believe the narrative conceit we’re fed that Martha has never bothered, as an adult, to be suspicious of the fact that she couldn’t find her grandmother’s gravestone, and never bothered to search for it years later as an adult. It also expects us to believe that she never did a cursory Google search about her own family history, which could have easily dug up the details of a certain spoilery plot point. The characters tread water until then and yes, there are multiple irritating moments where a Big Secret is nearly revealed, only for something to prevent it. And that Big Secret? Well, if you’ve seen a Lifetime movie, you’ve heard it. The very end of the book sputters and gasps in pursuit of some sort of plot thread.
Speaking of things we’ve (unfortunately) already all seen – I had a problem with one character in particular: Suki, who I would’ve liked if she hadn’t made ‘funny’ malapropisms that are instead apt to make the reader cringe. She becomes Martha’s best friend, but never becomes a real character. So too does The Library of Lost and Found edge constantly close to becoming a real book but, alas, never develops the nerve to do so.