An Introduction to The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett
“What about the most valuable relic in the history of English Literature—would that be worth killing for?” (p. 255).
Peter Byerly is still reeling from the loss of his beloved wife, Amanda. She passed away just nine months earlier and the young antiquarian bookseller doesn’t think anything could heighten his grief. Then, he happens upon a watercolor portrait inserted between the pages of an eighteenth-century study on Shakespeare forgeries. Peter is stunned. “This painting, so much older than Amanda or her mother or her grandmother, could not possibly portray her. But it did” (p. 3).
Amanda was buried in North Carolina, where she and Peter had met and spent most of their married life. So how is her image in an old book in an English bookshop? The portrait itself is “almost imperceptibly signed with the initials B. B.” (p. 3), but yields no other clues. Impulsively, Peter slips it into one of his purchases, determined to learn the identity of both artist and subject.
Peter was a habitual loner when he met Amanda during his sophomore year of college. They fell in love, and Peter knew joy for the first time in his life. Immediately after her funeral, he fled to England in order to avoid the intrusive solicitude of friends and family. The bookshop excursion was “the beginning of his attempt to … discover that the world of books still existed” (p. 8). Yet, the pile of tattered volumes he’d bought to restore and resell cannot distract him from the portrait and the woman whose presence he still feels.
When Amanda’s reference library on her beloved Victorian art proves no help with the portrait, Peter calls upon a local artist and watercolor expert for advice. It’s a bold act for a man with a “pathological dread of the unfamiliar” (p. 39), but the lure of the mystery is too great.
Further emboldened by his newfound obsession, Peter travels to London, where he meets Liz Sutcliffe. Liz—a forthright editor of art history books—plans to publish a monograph that will reveal the identity of the anonymous Victorian painter, but its secretive author will only divulge that “B. B. was involved in some sort of scandal” (p. 70). As they tentatively agree to pool their knowledge, Peter and Liz realize that someone will stop at nothing—even murder— to prevent the monograph’s publication.
Nearly four hundred years earlier, a charming but unscrupulous bookseller named Bartholomew Harbottle hatched a plan to transform an ordinary first edition of an obscure book called Pandosto into something infinitely more valuable. If Peter succeeds in his quest to unmask B. B., what he finds will link him to both Harbottle and the Holy Grail of English literature: definitive proof that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Charlie Lovett’s novel, The Bookman’s Tale, masterfully interweaves art history and literary history with a haunting tale of romance and deception. Alternating between Shakespeare’s time, the Victorian Era, and the present day, Lovett offers both a heartwarming chronicle of a shattered widower’s return to the world of the living and a salute to the magical power of books.