Bookish subplot propels debut

Tale of Aussie's New York job offers some Melville moments
by: , ‘The Secret of Lost Things’
by Sheridan Hay

Most bibliomaniacs are suckers for a novel that focuses on books, a bookstore or characters who also suffer from bibliomania.

In Sheridan Hay's debut, the reader gets all three.

It is the story of Rosemary Savage, a young Australian who winds up in New York City after the death of her mother. She ends up working in the Arcade Bookstore, an immense repository of used books populated by a number of quirky, knowledge-laden individuals.

Among them is Pearl Baird, a preoperative transsexual who operates the cash register and dreams of becoming an opera diva. She quickly becomes one of Rosemary's dearest friends while functioning as her personal devil's advocate.

Walter Geist is the store's general manager, a lonely, tortured albino who both mesmerizes and repels Rosemary. But it is Oscar Jarno, a handsome, asexual young man who constantly scribbles his thoughts and observations in a notebook, who will propel the naive Rosemary into a series of tragic and somewhat confusing events.

The novel's mystery, which deals with the possible existence of a lost Herman Melville manuscript, is not mentioned until almost halfway through. This may frustrate some readers, especially as the book gets bogged down in the details of Rosemary's unrequited crush on Oscar.

But Hay can be forgiven, thanks to a number of delightful descriptions of books and the people who crave them.

At one point Rosemary compares the journalists who sell review copies with the collectors who flock to the Arcade: 'I much preferred collectors. … Their attachments to books as things … had more to do with love than with money. The fact is, collecting has an erotic appeal.'

And while stealing a few minutes in the store's rare book room, Rosemary observes, 'No vertical space was open or unlined with books, and the air was heavy with a leathery smell, mixed with vanilla.'

As the plot surrounding the Melville manuscript picks up speed, Hay loses her way a bit. There's a rushed quality to this portion of the book and a sense that the author grappled with the outcome.

She also commits an error common to first-time authors when she mentions a rickety stair railing one too many times, so the reader is well-prepared for what could have been a more dramatic ending.

Ultimately, the book works best when it focuses on its fellow manuscripts. Perhaps the best description of this promising debut is summed up by Rosemary's thoughts as she enters a small New York library: 'I knew books to be objects that loved to cluster and form disordered piles, but here books seemed robbed of their zany capacity to fall about. … In the library, books behaved themselves.'

For her second novel, one hopes that Hay's writing is less disordered and on its very best behavior.

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Sheridan Hay

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29

Where: Annie Bloom's Books, 7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-0053

Also reading this week

Her book 'Back Roads' propelled Tawni O'Dell into the spotlight after Oprah Winfrey picked it for her book club. Now O'Dell is back with 'Sister Mine,' the story of one woman's struggle to come to terms with life in her coal-mining community, not to mention the sudden appearance of the sister she had assumed was dead.

O'Dell will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

Sen. John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, are coming to town with their new book, 'This Moment on Earth: Today's New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future.' The book looks at environmental advocates from all walks of life as they struggle to promote sustainability.

The couple will appear at 7 p.m. Monday at the Bagdad Theater (3702 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-236-9234), with sponsorship and books provided by Powell's. Tickets, $26, are available at the Bagdad Theater box office and Ticketmaster outlets. The price includes admission and a copy of the book, which will be distributed at the event.