I am very happy to review yet another literary mystery thrown my way by Goodreads.
This is one of those books that has the potential to be argued about for a while – what did the author want to say when she wrote it? What are the main themes? Why do you think author put that in? I’ll write about my own interpretation.
Rosemary Savage, a young bibliophile from Tasmania, loses her mother and is devastated (I recognised quite a few symptoms of depression which Hay described really well, but it’s never explicitly stated that she’s depressed). Her old friend suggests moving to New York and starting over – re-inventing yourself, so to speak. Luck seems to be on Rosemary’s side because on her very first day, she finds a job at a famous New York rare books bookstore – The Arcade. She meets quite a collection of characters – there is Oscar, the aromantic fabrics aficionado, with whom she arguably falls in love (more on that later). There is Pearl, a loving and street-smart trans woman who works at the register and becomes Rosemary’s confidante. There is lovely Arthur, whose name says it all. And of course, there is Walter Geist, the store manager – a lonely charismatic albino who is strangely fascinated with Rosemary and eventually employs her as his assistant when his eyesight begins to fail him. While working for him, she comes across a strange letter from someone seeking a lost novel of the author of “Moby Dick”. She and Oscar decide to look into it which leads to devastating consequences.
I love literary mysteries and I love well-written and relatable characters. “The Secret of Lost Things”‘ protagonist is incredibly relatable – to me, anyway. As a former teenage immigrant, I could understand Rosemary’s inner struggles very well. Hay demonstrates the emotions of a young, impressionable girl really well. For instance, Rosemary falling in love with Oscar can be easily understood. She is young, and in her eyes, he is amazing. However, she later realises that she is in love with an idea, an image of Oscar – he is nowhere near as amazing as a picture she’s painted in her mind. I am sure that many other people can relate to that – idealism of youth is something we all have experienced at some point and Hay is really good at using it to show Rosemary’s development.
Another part I really liked was the friendship between Rosemary, Pearl and Rosemary’s landlady, Lilian. The three women have completely different backgrounds and personalities, but it doesn’t stop them from forging a tight bond. It kinda reminded me of my time as an Erasmus student in Spain – our group of friends was made up of so many incredible diverse personalities! I loved it.
However, while the characterisation in “The Secret of Lost Things” is wonderful, the literary mystery element is rather weak, compared to other books of similar nature. I can understand Hay parallelling Herman Melville’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s relationship and Melville’s love for the latter against Rosemary’s and Oscar’s relationship, which was interesting, but I feel that the long-lost manuscript storyline was poorly-developed and while it is clear that Hay has done a lot of research on the subject, the story isn’t really believeable. The best way to describe how I feel about the way the mystery was resolved is “unsatisfied”. Hay has spent a lot of time showing us Geist’s obsession with Rosemary and has included the most awkward and cringeworthy love scene since Poison Ivy 4. Geist has used the word “unsatisfied” afterwards and it stuck with me throughout the hasty and abrupt conclusion of the story.
At the end, I felt like I didn’t really know what kind of a story Hay was trying to write. The characters, like I said above, were well-written and I liked Rosemary’s development, but it was like the author has added the lost novel plot as an afterthought or as a plot device in order to illustrate character development. This kind of technique can work really well, e.g. “The Angel’s Game”, “The Club Dumas”, “The Thirteenth Tale” etc., but despite Hay’s writing talent, it did not work well here. However, it was not a bad novel and I wouldn’t discourage against reading it. My rating – 6.5/10
Most relatable character:
Rosemary – I could see a lot of my younger self in her
Least favourite character:
Geist – his obsession creeped me out
Rosemary and Pearl’s friendship
“The books housed in one’s first adult bookshelf are the geological bed of who we wish to become”
Rosemary – Emilie de Ravin
Walter Geist – Edgar Winter
Pearl – Carmen Carrera
You might like “The Secret of Lost Things” if you liked:
“The Club Dumas” by Arturo Perez-Reverte;
“A Novel Bookstore” by Laurence Cosse;
“The End of Mr Y” by Scarlett Thomas