First Impressions by Charlie Lovett
Pub. Date: October 16, 2014
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.
In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books.
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Recommended for: open-minded fans of Jane Austen willing to put story ahead of fact, fans of dual narratives
I’ll admit that when the publicist first reached out to me about this novel I was more than a little hesitant: I’ve made it 26 years without reading a Jane Austen novel, though I feel that by now I’m familiar enough with her works (through countless movie adaptations, friends, etc) to get the gist. So despite my worries, I took the plunge: I have extremely good luck with Viking and multiple factors of the novel intrigued me – y’all know I love a good dual narrative!
First Impressions is told through two narratives: Sophie Collingwood in the present, and Miss Jane Austen herself. The novel alternates between these two time periods, though Jane’s chapters are only a page or two to Sophie’s 10+. In the present, Sophie is at a crossroads in her life, unsure of what a post-Oxford career holds. A terrible tragedy sets her on a path of mystery and death threats, through she’s determined to get to the bottom of it – regardless of the consequences the end result holds for the literary world.
While Jane’s family loves hearing her stories, it seems as though they’ll be the only ones to ever enjoy her work; she’s struggling to find a publisher and has all but given up hope of ever achieving her dreams of being a writer. A chance encounter with the kindly Reverend Richard Mansfield leads to an incredible friendship and changes Jane’s life in ways she could have never imagined.
Let’s cut right to the chase: I liked First Impressions. Really liked it…as in an Any-Time-I-Wasn’t-Reading-It-Was-On-My-Mind, Rush-Home-From-Work-To-Read kind of deal. That said, I’m wondering if I enjoyed it so much because I haven’t read Jane Austen. Mr. Lovett took several liberties here and entertained some ideas that Janeites definitely wouldn’t find amusing. Can you imagine the mass hysteria that would erupt if evidence was shown that Jane Austen didn’t write her novels? Or worse, that she blatantly stole the ideas and characters? You’re looking at the start of World War III. So I’m wondering if my ambivalence toward Jane actually worked in my favor. A few months ago I read Mrs. Poe and while I understood it was a work of fiction, the characterization still rubbed me the wrong way. Virginia, a scheming, conniving, heartless woman who acts more like a child? Contemporaries of Poe have described him as a soft-spoken, charming man. In Mrs. Poe he was a suave sex god, leaving a trail of housewives in his wake. I absolutely understand why First Impressions might not be the novel for die-hard Austen fans.
Honestly, I love a good mystery (particularly at this time of the year!), and a literary mystery is even better! There were some twists and turns I wasn’t expecting and I’m happy to admit that some of my assumptions weren’t correct (I love it when I can’t see the end coming and a novel completely takes me by surprise). I’m not sure if it was because Sophie’s chapters were much longer than Jane’s and therefore I got to know her better, but I found myself enjoying the present day chapters far more – though I have a soft spot for the sweet Reverend Mansfield! Sophie’s sleuthing starts when she takes a position at an antiquarian bookstore. One day a customer comes into the shop with a rather odd request: he’s looking for a second edition of Reverend Mansfield’s book of allegorical tales. The following day a second man comes looking for the very same collection. Sophie’s Spidey senses are tingling and it’s not just because of Winston’s good looks. There’s something going on and could it have anything to do with her beloved uncle’s strange death?
I did have one problem with the novel. Since she was a child, Sophie has loved books and reading. With her Uncle Bertram’s help, she began collecting volumes and one passage had my eyebrows raised:
One girl in her tutorial had complained of the moldy smell wafting off Sophie’s copy of Little Dorrit, and Sophie had retorted, “This is the first book edition. Without the mold it would have cost me twice as much.”
Sophie’s right – without the mold it would have cost much more, but this book is now damaged beyond repair. Mold is a living organism. It spreads, it grows. I deal with this every single day at work. It could be the rarest book in the world, but if mold has reached it, there’s nothing I can do. The same with broken books. In First Impressions, there’s talk of collecting broken and torn novels because they’re cheaper. I’ll never forget the day I had to throw out a first edition of Hemingway because it was literally split in two. Not just a cracked spine, but I could hold one half of the book in my left hand and the other half in my right. A small marking can be forgiven, but there’s some damage that’s too great. As a book lover Sophie ought to know this – especially once she becomes a bookseller herself!
Despite that minor annoyance, I had a fantastic time with First Impressions, but it’s a novel I’d recommend cautiously. Readers who live and breathe Austen might want to pass on this one unless you’re willing to go into it with a very open mind. However, if you’re a total Austen newbie like me and want a thrilling mystery, First Impressions is great! Short chapters, fast-paced, with an exciting premise. Definitely my kind of book!
“That’s the beauty of rare books,” he had said one evening when he was reading a first edition of Cecelia. “If you mail a rare stamp it becomes worthless. If you drink a rare bottle of wine, you’re left with some recycling. But if you read a rare book it’s still there, it’s still valuable, and it’s achieved the full measure of its being. A book is to read, whether it’s worth five pounds or five thousand pounds.”