I love books. I love books about books; bookstores, writers, book collectors…well, you get the idea. As a result, I plunged into “The Secrets of Lost Things” like a child diving into a summer pond; joyfully and without restraint. I reveled in the descriptions of miles of maze-like shelves with dusty, redolent books while sympathizing with the (somewhat obligatory) idiosyncratic cast of characters.
While some reviewers found the plot thin, or felt the narratives unresolved, I was willing not only suspend disbelief, but to chuck it out the window and bask in Hay’s homage to obsessive book collecting.
I am not a big fan of coming-of-age novels or first person narratives, but since Hay worked in bookstores and lived in Sydney, AU, the novel worked for me. The novel felt both intimate and expressive.
After traveling from Tasmania to New York with $300, 18 year-old Rosemary Savage finds work and fellowship in the Arcade Bookshop. As described, the mysterious bookstore resembles New York’s Strand, where Hay once worked.
The Strand Bookstore is one of those rapidly vanishing treasure: an independent bookstore. Located at 828 Broadway, in the East Village of Manhattan, The Strand is one of the last remaining member of “Book Row,” a once thriving mecca of 48 bookstores. The store occupies three and a half floors, and, as of December 2011, had 2.5 million books and more than 240 employees. (Wikipedia)
“Strand Bookstore” by Beyond My Ken – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons
While working in the bookstore, protagonist Savage blithely interacts with her fellow employees, including an embittered albino manager, a good-hearted transsexual cashier, an insufferably aloof nonfiction expert, and an avuncular rare-books curator.
Just as Savage learns about her co-workers, she walks the streets of New York to become familiar with her new home. The description of the Martha Washington Hotel for Women bears no resemblance to the contemporary sleek boutique lodgings located at 29 East 29th Street in NYC.
Perhaps the more fanciful description hotel description is, as the Melville quote purports, “not down on any map; true places never are.” If that is the case, I’m sure I would be more comfortable in the actual Martha Washington Hotel.
The reference is apt, since Melville plays an important role in “The Secret of Lost Things.” In addition to a coming-of-age story, Hay weaves a mystery about a missing Melville manuscript, and sends protagonist on the hunt.
With a lost literary masterpiece, book lovers and collectors and a thinly disguised world famous bookstore, “The Secret of Lost Things” clicked all the boxes on my list for a fun novel.
Edited 9/5/2016. Sad to report, the Martha Washington Hotel has changed its name and owners. You can find more information here: http://theredbury.com/newyork/photos-videos/