Another book about books, and one I thought I would like better than The Thirteenth Tale since it is more narrowly focused on Melville and his masterpiece. Moby Dick is one of those novels people love to hate. Often cited as the best American novel, the story of Ahab and the white whale is equally often mocked for its long digressions and weighty themes. I fell in love with Melville’s work when I was twenty and read everything I could find, including—yes—all of Moby Dick even the chapters on whaling, etc.
So I was eager to read this novel about a young woman who emigrates from Tasmania to New York, where she finds a job in a huge, unruly bookstore and discovers Melville. Rosemary is alone in the world, her mother having passed away, and her one friend (who was also her mother’s only friend) a bookstore-owner back in Tasmania. In New York, Rosemary gradually gets to know the peculiar denizens of the bookstore, such as the owner who rants at customers and employees alike from his raised platform, dishy Oscar from Nonfiction who knows all about fabrics, gentle Mr. Mitchell from Rare Books, and Walter Geist, an albino with numerous mysterious ailments including incipient blindness, who is the store manager.
The store itself is known for finding lost books and the employees play a game called Who Knows? trying to top each other’s knowledge of some little-known, esoteric book. Since the only other woman at the store is Pearl, an aspiring opera singer who is in the process of transitioning to the female she understands herself to be, Rosemary’s arrival at the store sets the pigeon among the cats. Oscar introduces Rosemary to Melville’s epic but spurns her romantic overtures. Arthur, who works in the Art section and calls her TD (short for Tasmanian Devil), shows her photography books that embarrass her. Geist seems to find excuses for her company and eventually makes her his assistant.
Geist asks her to read him a strange letter about a manuscript and then to accompany him to visit one of the store’s most esteemed customers, a rich collector, with whose librarian Geist seems to be on very familiar terms. Intrigued by the air of secrecy surrounding both the letter and the visit, Rosemary talks over her suspicions with Oscar, and the two begin to investigate the mysterious manuscript.
Hay has come up with some truly original characters and has crafted a story with sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious references to Moby Dick and Melville’s other work. At the same time, she has portrayed New York City as a place of mystery and wonder, a feat I’ve rarely seen done, maybe by Pete Hamill, Mark Helprin. So in many ways I liked it better than last week’s book. What I missed, though, was Setterfield’s amazing language, her wonderful sentences. Much to admire in both books, while I look for more literary adventure stories.