[read as an ebook from my local library]
If you read my little snarky Cannonball Read bio, you’ll see in addition to various other quirks and personal failings an “acknowledged tendency to fall for fictional characters.” This is not as strictly a joke as it ought to be — I have always tended (still do) to form rather strong attachments to figments of someone else’s imagination. I suppose you could call it a sort of parasocial relationship with someone who is maybe even less real than a celebrity. The only joke is that of course it’s not only romantic — the first time it happened was with The Velveteen Rabbit. (Leave a comment if you also found yourself devastated at the thought of throwing away a stuffed animal after reading that one!)
In the years since, I’ve had a few instances where I either identified very strongly with a fictional character (Meg Murry, Anne Shirley, Mary Lennox, Elizabeth Bennett, Eowyn) or just really, really liked a fictional character enough that when they did something stupid (Jack Aubrey) I would momentarily stop reading the book/”break up” with the character in question (Jack Aubrey) until I had recovered enough from their frankly ridiculous behavior (Jack Aubrey) and forgiven them enough to continue reading (I totally know Jack is an idiot but…he’s my problematic fave, is what I’m saying).
If the above two paragraphs seem at all familiar to you and not simply the ravings of a child who grew up with too many books and not enough friends (which, guilty), then you might very much enjoy this book. It tells the story of a few different people — Robert Sutherland is an attorney in Wellington, New Zealand, living a fairly normal life except for the fact that his genius younger brother, Dr. Charles Sutherland, has recently moved back to New Zealand from university. Charley is one of those prodigies that was reading adult books at 3 and went off to Oxford at 13. He’s now a bonafide Dickens scholar at 26, and would just be your usual scatterbrained academic except he has this penchant for pulling items and characters out of books and into reality when he reads them too closely. This isn’t a big problem when it’s Sherlock Holmes or Pip, but when he’s thinking too hard about the meaning of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield one night, things begin to go bad quickly.
To explain too much about this book would be to spoil some fairly enjoyable plot beats, so I’ll leave it there. Basically this is one part mystery, one part fantasy, one part good-natured ribbing about literary criticism, one part family drama, and most of all a love story about, well, stories — what they are, what they mean, what they do. Even if you don’t get over-involved with book people — even if you just like stories, this might be worth your time.
I only rated it four stars, however, because there were a few quibbles I had with the book overall. My foremost issue is that it’s pretty long for what it is. There were several times I could feel myself trying to read ahead to the next “event” past the family stuff. There’s rather a lot of family stuff. This may be more about me than the book — I’m an only child, and a lot of this is specifically about the relationship between Rob and Charley. But there’s just a lot about “we have to keep this secret,” “you’re ruining my life,” “I didn’t ask you to come,” etc. that eventually made me feel like saying, “Okay, I get it, guys. You’re dysfunctional. You could have saved everybody, including yourselves, about 100 pages if you’d just been a smidge more open with the people in your lives who very clearly love you.”
Also — and I realize this makes me a hack and a fraud as a literature major — I really don’t care for Dickens. I think this might be a more enjoyable read if you do like Dickens, just because Charley is a Dickens scholar, and Uriah Heep is a Dickens character, and there’s just — there’s a lot of Dickens. Rob is a decent reader proxy and gets enough explained to him that you certainly won’t be confused or lost if you, like me (a hack and fraud) successfully avoided reading much of any Dickens throughout your entire high school and college career. But I think if you actually like old Boz you’d be more into it in a more visceral way than I was.
Lastly — and this part definitely did resound with me unlike the other two — if you don’t have a background in close reading or critical theory, you might not get quite as much out of the mechanics of the story as you might otherwise. You definitely do not have to have a graduate degree in literature to read this book. In fact, I generally counsel against a graduate degree in literature in most situations. But if you do (I’m sorry), you’ll at least enjoy the little bits about reader response and Marxist interpretation and Foucault all the theory that was crammed into your head only to (hopefully) fall back out a few years later.
Those reservations being stated, this is a good book with a few really lovely bits that I am glad I read. There was one character who appeared that I wasn’t expecting that I was excited and interested to see — I really kind of wished for more in that vein, but this probably wasn’t the book (or maybe author either) for that (no spoilers). A person whose opinions I trust assures me that, contrary to the blurb on Goodreads, this book is not at all like The Magicians, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, or The Invisible Library. Having read none of those, I will rely on that opinion and say that I would compare it most to the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde in concept if not overly much in tone.