The moment I saw Charlie Lovett’s latest title, First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, I had to read it. I know this author through his first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, which I will begin soon. That one’s about Shakespeare. Learn more about his background–including being a bookseller and collector of rare titles–at his website.
First Impressions was the original title Jane Austen gave to Pride and Prejudice. Just as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy have to get past their original negative impressions of each other, the heroine of First Impressions is torn between two men. Sophie Collingwood can’t decide whom she likes better–Eric, an irritating American grad student, or an urbane bookseller. Sophie is also at loose ends about what to do, now that she’s graduated from college. She’s’s earned a degree in English, Even though she’s worked for four years in the library of St. John’s College, Oxford, she doesn’t know what her calling should be or the direction she should take in life. Her beloved Uncle Betram, has always helped to guide her. Through him she adopted a love for literature and rare books. Along with him, she has always been a familiar figure in the London bookshops.
Alas, her uncle dies suddenly. For some reason, Sophie can’t accept what happened to him, and she decides to do some sleuthing on her own. Along the way, she gets a job with a bookshop, and pleases the customers and the owner with her tenacious ability to track books down. One day, two requests come in for the same book–an original edition of Pride and Prejudice. Time for Sophie to do more detective work.
The novel grabs readers immediately. The plot alternates between Sophie’s time in the modern day and Jane Austen’s time. Here, we find Jane and her family on holiday. One day, while out on a walk, she meets an older gentleman–Rev. Mansfield. They quickly bond over literature and writing. Fortunately for readers, the story moves fast and equal time is spent in each century.
The novel is also a love song to books, literature, and favorite works. I found these passages on page 191 very moving:
On the lower corner of the first page of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice housed at St. John’s College, Oxford, is a small circular water stain. It does not affect the text, nor is it significant enough to reduce the value of the book. But, like every mark in a book, it tells a story, and like so many marks in so many books, it is a story known only to one person and doomed to be lost forever when that person is no more. It is the mark of a single tear that dropped from the cheek of Sophie Collingwood as she stared at those words, and is a testament to the power of literature.
Sophie wiped her cheek, but could not put the book down. Lost in the words, she read on, embracing both the familiar story and the unfamiliar way it appeared on the page. She felt herself somehow at one with the first men and women who read the novel; she felt especially connected to the person–she imagined her a lady of some wealth living in Bath–who first read this very copy.
This is a lovely. imaginative, and engaging read. Not to be missed.