The Secret of Lost Things
By By Sheridan Hay
New York: Doubleday, 2007
Hard back: ISBN: 038551848X Price: 23.95
Sheridan Hay’s debut novel chronicles a year in the life of Rosemary Savage, a young woman who, in the wake of her mother’s death, moves to New York City, lands a job at the Arcade (a used and antiquarian bookstore modeled on the Strand), and finds herself an unwitting pawn in the quest for a lost manuscript novel by Herman Melville.
Fatherless Rosemary is a naïve eighteen-year old when her mother dies, leaving her virtually alone in her native Tasmania. A family friend who owns a bookshop buys Rosemary the chance to start anew—a one-way ticket to New York City. Hay deftly weaves the story of her main character into a rather lightweight literary mystery involving the lost manuscript of Agatha, a novel by Herman Melville known only through his extensive and detailed correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are some nice parallels to Melville’s main characters in Moby Dick (which Rosemary begins reading as she starts work at the Arcade).
The Arcade is the central setting, where we find a predictably quirky crew at work, all well-drawn by Hay. George Pike is the proprietor, who literally lords over his staff from a raised platform, where he stands behind an oak railing pricing books. His “compelling gestures suggested a priest at a lectern,” Hay writes, echoing Father Mapple in Moby Dick. Walter Geist is the albino store manager who is going blind; Oscar is the know-it-all clerk who becomes the object of Rosemary’s affection despite his ultimate frigidity; Arthur is a corpulent art history buff with a penchant for nudes; Pearl is the lone cashier, a “preoperative transsexual” who befriends Rosemary immediately; and Robert Mitchell is the pipe-smoking overseer of the rare book room.
Innocent, red haired, and beautiful (her lack of self-awareness occasionally stretches credulity), Rosemary is drawn into a net of conflicting confidences when she learns that Walter Geist is attempting to broker a clandestine deal for Melville’s Agatha.
The Secret of Lost Things is mildly self-indulgent, as novels set around books and bookshops tend to be. What saves it are Rosemary’s internal moments, which often border on the poetic and grow between the action and the dialogue like a lush moss between flagstones. The pacing is carefully measured, resulting in a certain lassitude, so that one is continually hoping that something will hurry up and happen. Those who love to read about books will enjoy Hay’s delicate style, laced as it is with literary parallels and lightly spiced with intrigue.