Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: First Impressions by Charles Lovett

I loved this book. This is not, however, to say it is an extremely well-written or brilliant book that will change the course of literature. It is certainly neither of those things. It is, though, something that I, perhaps, value even more than that: it is a deeply comforting, satisfying, and pleasurable read for the lover of books, and Jane Austen in particular. Lovett's First Impressions is a well-written and very readable novel that is made up of relatively short chapters that alternate between Jane Austen's life and that of a present-day young English woman named Sophie. It is similar in basic plot to A.S. Byatt's Possession, but it is a much fluffier and lighter version.  (I love Possession, by the way.)  Like Possession, First Impressions alternates between present-day scholars/bibliophiles attempting to uncover a major literary mystery, and the unfolding of the story of the historical literary figure in the past.  Both books also include a bit of mayhem and thievery to up the ante.  Lovett's book includes lovely and unconventional (read: not sexual, but romantic and avuncular) relationships between young women and older men.  This made me a bit uncomfortable at first (aside from everything else, the gender politics of this are not great), but the relationships were depicted in such a lovely way that I wasn't too bothered in the end.  I especially loved the description of the relationship between Sophie and her uncle, who is now among my favorite characters I have encountered in literature.  He is the ultimate bibliophile who teaches young Sophie everything she knows about loving and collecting books.

I felt that the book was perfectly paced, and the chapters were just short enough to keep me constantly wanting a bit more, but in a good way. This is an incredibly enjoyable and quick read, and it felt very much like a love letter to bibliophiles. The best word I can find to describe this book is "cozy." I absolutely luxuriated in the reading of this novel. Lovett comes at bibliophilia from all angles, and includes wonderful, delicious details about bookish research, the book trade, the reading life, and libraries. This is a book I will return to whenever I am feeling low. And that is in spite of a few weaknesses: I never felt like the character of Sophie was fully rounded out, Sophie's love story was a bit ridiculous and not very believable for the 21st century, and Lovett's explanation of the reasons behind the writing of a certain beloved book felt forced and tenuous. But seriously, none of that really mattered, as the book made me so happy.

This lovely book comes out in hardcover (and digital) on October 16 from Penguin Books.

(I received a free advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review from Penguin Books.)

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