Our book club just finished The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett, a literary thriller that revolves around a Shakespearean artifact.
It begins, however, with a watercolor painting. Peter Byerly, an antiquarian bookseller, is browsing old books in a shop in Hay-On-Wye, Wales, nine months after the death of his beloved wife, Amanda. After flipping through a book on famous forgeries, he finds, tucked within its pages, a small watercolor of a beautiful woman who looks uncannily like his deceased wife. The watercolor is signed only with the initials B.B, and is clearly from the Victorian age.
In Peter’s quest to find out the identity of B.B and the woman in the painting, he stumbles across a manuscript of the medieval writer Robert Greene, called Pandosto. In the margins of the book are notes and scribblings that very well could have been written by Shakespeare himself, as the Bard’s play A Winter’s Tale is said to be based upon Greene’s Pandosto. Peter just might have found his literary holy grail.
The connections between the mysterious watercolor and the Pandosto-which may or may not be a forgery-forms the basis of the plot, as Peter investigates the history of the book’s various owners, and begins tests to prove its authenticity. But his endeavors are complicated by feuding English houses, murder, and a woman named Liz Sutcliffe, who’s helping Peter, as well as threatening to penetrate the comprehensive grief he’s held onto for his dead wife.
The book alternates between three different time periods-the present (1995 in the book), the near past when Peter met his wife Amanda at Ridgefield University in 1985, and the distant past in Elizabethan England, with the creation of the manuscript in question, Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and the book’s various owners over the years. There are also scenes delving into the feuding English houses, the Gardners and the Aldersons, whose history is key to the mystery of the Pandosto as well as the watercolor painting by B.B.
It was sometimes difficult keeping track of all these threads, but they do tie in nicely with each other towards the end of the book. Despite being a little confused half the time, I enjoyed this book abut old books, literary treasure hunts, art, revenge, murder, and the depth of love and grief.
Lovett has also written a book called First Impressions, another literary thriller concerning Jane Austen and the authorship of Pride and Prejudice. That one is definitely going onto our book club list!