I obtained an ARC of Katherine Reay’s The Brontё Plot through NetGalley because the title made me curious and because Bronte’s Plot was a book about books. As it turned out, The Brontё Plot captured my imagination for another reason, which goes hand in hand with some of my favorite things. (For those who have either seen or heard music from the Sound of Music, the phrase “some of my favorite things” will be familiar.)
Last Saturday, my husband and I, as part of our challenge to ourselves to become more physically fit, change our eating habits by acquiring healthier ones, we set off to get our daily Fitbit challenge of 10,000 steps. Our intended destination was Chattanooga, Tennessee, albeit an indirect route. Well, as it often does, life intervened and we ended up, courtesy of Atlanta highway construction, in the Virginia-Highlands area of Atlanta (Chattanooga was too far to go by the time we were able to get to I-75 late Saturday afternoon). It was a memorable trip. After making dinner reservations at La Tavola, we decided to stroll down some of the neighborhood streets in one of the Virginia-Highlands neighborhoods. Besides the old houses that are home to a diverse combined mix of yuppies, young families, natives of the bygone years, students, gays and lesbians, there is an odd house that had several white clothed roundtables like those you find in restaurants on its front porch and a private plainclothes security guard posted out front. Curiosity got the better of my husband. He asked if the house had been converted into a restaurant, in disguise, as there was no signage. It was not the guard noted without elaboration. Odd house. Anyways, there is also a school, a park, a few churches, and some steep San Francisco-class roads (think Nob Hill). Halloween was clearly on the neighborhood’s mind. Quite a lot of the houses were decorated for Halloween—some grandly while others were done up more modestly. There were more pumpkins, both uncarved and carved, than I had seen anywhere else except in stores. Halloween parties were getting underway as we walked. This neighborhood like others around it has been redeemed from its shadier past, yet it retains some elements of its past. It is quirky in a feel good way. This feeling was my takeaway.
This takeaway, the spirt of redemption that does not do away completely with the past is the essence of The Brontё Plot. The main character, Lucy is at a cross roads, though she does not immediately recognize this fact. When the story opens, Lucy works for an antiques dealer-interior decorator, Sid in his store as a clerk and general helper. Sid redeems the antiques and other people’s cast offs giving them new life, sometimes as one of a kind creations or simply through refurbishing. Lucy’s specialty is buying and selling old books, and modernizing the business via computerized showrooms and product development.
One day a customer named James walks in looking for something to buy his grandmother for her birthday. Lucy ends up selling James some books and in short order, a romance flourishes between Lucy and James. Down the line, Lucy meets the grandmother and the two over time become friends while Lucy and James’ relationship abruptly ends when James discovers that Lucy has forged the inscriptions in the fly leafs of the books he purchased.
Through the painful process of coming to terms with James’ rejection, Lucy begins the process of growing up, standing on her own two feet. She acknowledges her past through realizing and understanding what her father is and always will be, a scam artist with a creative streak, while understanding that she does not have to follow in his footsteps. During this time, James’ grandmother, Helen enlists Lucy on a buying trip to England. It is a discovery trip for both Helen and Lucy, a time for settling old scores, righting wrongs, and understanding the meaning of family, and getting to know, and be comfortable with the person inside you.
The Brontё Plot is all this and more, and like people, it is an imperfect but amazing piece of literature. Like the things you find at estate and garage sales, and the items Sid, and Lucy restore, there are some odd phrasings and parts—quirkiness: ineffable fashion describes London traffic, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace is a blonde brick wall. There are the cute things—Dillon, Helen and Lucy’s driver, describes a visit to New York where he made “a right fool of myself” while posing in front of the Statute of Liberty with a foam replica of statute on his head. There are the interesting, and sometimes unexpected finds—Dillon and Bette’s (innkeeper) romance, the tour of the literary countryside (homes and places of author’s lives and of the stories they wrote), Lucy’s father reincarnation as an amazingly successful tour guide of this literary countryside, and a good line on a new author of Victorian England and its art world—John Ruskin. The last 13% of the book is truly excellent—Lucy’s letter to her father is very moving and it proves that Sins of the Father (Jeffrey Archer’s title for the second book in his historical fiction Harry Clifton series) can be just that and nothing more—sins of the father–through redemption and refurbishing.