First Impressions, Charlie Lovett’s follow-up to his very successful debut novel The Bookman’s Tale, shares many similarities with its predecessor, the most obvious, of course, being its “bookish” theme. Once again, Lovett’s main characters are book people who are happiest when they are surrounded by books, their own or those they can find anywhere else. This type of book has developed into a recognizable sub-genre in recent years, one that has great appeal to the most avid of readers amongst us.
For the most part, First Impressions delivers the goods. Despite being a little predictable because of a plot that readers of this genre have already become all too familiar with, that of a lost manuscript that could change the way the world looks upon a major literary figure from the past (in this case, Jane Austen), the novel gets off to a strong start. The set-up works beautifully, in fact, as we meet Sophie Collingwood, a young woman who has just taken a job in a London antiquarian book shop. Sophie loves her new job, particularly working the shop’s “want list” for customers hoping she can find the books they have been unable to locate on their own. And it turns out to be this same “want list” that will pull her into a mystery that could end up wrecking the reputation of her favorite author, Jane Austen.
As the mystery deepens, Lovett alternates chapters from Sophie’s present day point-of-view with chapters set in 1796 and recounted through Jane Austen’s eyes. Tension builds as the two story lines begin to converge, Sophie starts to unravel the mystery, and Jane Austen delights in a new relationship with a man four times her age. This man, Richard Mansfield, as it turns out, is the author of a book (A Little Book of Allegories) that has the potential to ruin Jane’s literary reputation more than 200 years after its publication.
Unfortunately, all of that well-constructed tension is squandered by the book’s rather farcical climax, a climax during which the novel’s characters morph into caricatures right out of a pre-talkie cliffhanger from some 1920s movie theater. The action grows so ridiculous at one point that the reader almost expects to find the heroine being tied to railroad tracks while her tormentor gloatingly twists his mustache as a speeding train comes barreling toward them. This jarring change of tone lessens the impact of the other eighty percent of the book, and that is unfortunate because, until that point, First Impressions was good fun.