When I first started reading I kept thinking the author was Geraldine Brooks. This is partly because March arrived just after I had started reading this one, and I couldn't help but read the first few pages of it; but also because the main character of this book is written as a bibliophile with the same reverence for and love of books as Hanna from People of the Book.
One thing I loved about this book was the insightfulness of its writing. Take, for example, this quote about death, immortality and books:
"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic."
Or this brief mention, also on books: "For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down."
And who among us readers has not known the following feeling?
"All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes--characters even--caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you."
Thoughts like these, that seem at once profound and an expression of my own ideas, were interwoven with a very intriguing and mysterious story. These are ingredients that go a long way towards making a great book.
Of course, the book wasn't perfect. As I read, I was afraid the actual thirteenth tale that everyone was so curious about would not be revealed any more than what was in Marcellus Wallace's case. I also considered the possibility that the thirteenth tale was merely the history Miss Winter was relating to Margaret, which really would not have fit in the original book, either in style or in length. Of course, the thirteenth tale did turn out to be Miss Winter's story, though it was stylized and shortened. It would have fit perfectly in the original book, though I can see why it was left out.
I didn't like the chapter where Margaret met Aurelius. It seemed somehow vague and unrealistic, and the man himself didn't seem to fit in the story. But as I read on, it became clear that Aurelius belonged right where he was. It was a relief to find that the chapter in question was not as purposeless as it seemed at first. Similarly, I had trouble believing Adeline could have changed so much. How could such a wild, wicked, and soulless child, obviously not right in the head, suddenly become a level-headed and intelligent young woman? It made me feel much better when I found out she hadn't, as that revelation closed up what I had perceived to be an annoying plot hole.
I have debated with myself over whether to label this book as a "must read," as it doesn't quite measure up to The Amnesiac or The Time Traveler's Wife in my mind, but it is still excellent and I can't imagine any avid reader not enjoying it. I am also having trouble deciding whether to re-post it on paperbackswap. My usual criteria is whether I would want to read the book again someday, and I probably would want to, except that right now I have so many other books I want to read that I feel like I just don't have time to re-read one. On the other hand, this is a nice hardcover copy . . . I think I'll hang onto it.