Well the holiday season is officially upon us. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of readers on my Christmas list and this time of year I’m trolling around trying to find books that they would love.
If you have stumbled here because you are looking for gift ideas, I would love to help you. But first, I would like to offer this caveat: books are very personal gifts. You need to know the person very well to know what they would like to read. So go forth gently. And always get a gift receipt.
If there’s a Jane Austen lover on your list (and there definitely is), may I recommend Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love and Jane Austen? It is wonderful.
I mentioned that I was sick last week. I didn’t mention that my husband felt so sorry for me that he went out and bought me a book to try and cheer me up. First Impressions was that book and I only waited long enough to be able to hold my head up to start reading it.
Sophie Collingwood is a modern recent graduate and lover of Jane Austen, trying to sort out what the next step is going to be. She just finished a Master’s in English Literature at Oxford and is at a bit of a loose end. She bumps into Eric Hall, a charming American who ends up kissing her in the garden of her parents’ country estate and then takes off to read his way through Europe. Soon after, her beloved Uncle Bertram (Bertram!), the man who shared his love of old books with her, dies under suspicious circumstances. Sophie, the only other person in the family who loved books as he did, is left his London apartment and ostensibly his collection of books.
Sophie decides she might as well go and live in the London apartment but when she walks in she discovers that all of his books have been sold to help pay debts. In her quest to find the books, she starts working for an old friend of Uncle Bertam’s, in a rare book store. And that’s where she meets Winston. He’s after a rare edition of allegorical tales by a Richard Mansfield, but only the second edition. Hours later someone else calls asking for the very same volume.
As Sophie puts together the pieces, she realizes that what she’s doing could ruin Jane Austen’s reputation.
While we follow Sophie trying to figure out what happened, we meet a young Jane Austen striking up an unlikely friendship with 80-something Richard Mansfield. Having just published a volume of allegorical tales, he is eager to help her with her story, Elinor and Marianne. After Jane confesses a sin of her youth to him, Richard encourages her to embark on another project as a way of making up for it.
Lovett’s understanding and knowledge of Jane Austen make First Impressions a delight to read. Even if you are only marginally familiar with her, you will enjoy his allusions to her work. The connection to Austen as she is writing means that large portions of her most famous work are included and it made me want to re-read her books all over again. I’ve told myself that Persuasion is the next one slated for a re-read but Pride and Prejudice made a fairly strong case for itself.
I loved the weaving of a literary mystery with the writing process of one of the most beloved authors in history. I don’t mind telling you that I could not get enough of this book. The book itself was beautiful and as a serious book collector himself, you know that Lovett has great love for his subject matter. By loving this book I’m probably at risk of being labeled an “Austen fangirl” – those readers that will read anything with a whiff of Austen. But I’ve always been extremely selective with the Austen spinoffs I’m willing to read. First Impressions is one of the best.
I’m on the lookout for his other novel, The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession now.