Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Secret of Lost Things.
Rosemary Savage is lost in every sense of the word. Her mother has recently died, and Rosemary is newly arrived in New York City from Australia. Alone and desperate, she ducks into a used bookshop one day and becomes mesmerized. The Arcade (which resembles The Strand in real-life New York) is a sea of books, a place for the lost Rosemary to find herself, or perhaps to vanish even more. She marvels at the knowledge contained within and decides that she has to work there, no matter what it takes. She is reluctantly hired by the owner, George Pike, and his albino manager, Walter Geist. And so Rosemary unwittingly steps into this tale of intrigue and suspicion in which everyone and everything is lost and cannot be found.
The Secret of Lost Things hosts an interesting cast of characters, which may be its strongest attribute. The enigmatic Pike and the troubled Geist are just the beginning. There is Pearl, a transsexual who aspires to be an opera singer; Oscar, the emotionally unavailable but brilliant man who captures Rosemary’s heart; and Lillian, the Argentinean woman whose son is missing, presumed dead. Add to that Chap, Mr. Mitchell, and Art, and the reader finds a whirlwind of oddity and deception surrounding the innocence so vividly embodied within Rosemary.
Where The Secret of Lost Things seems to be lacking is in the literary thriller area. It is evident that the book was written to be a tale of literary suspense; here it does not succeed. The novel involves a lost manuscript of Herman Melville’s called The Isle of the Cross. (Apparently, this is actually a true story – Melville’s publisher rejected the manuscript and it has since been lost). Rosemary stumbles upon references to it with Mr. Geist and takes Oscar into her confidence, an indication of her sheer innocence. Rosemary becomes entangled within the web of lies at the Arcade which surround this lost work and eventually plunges headlong into disaster.
While this should be compelling, it simply isn’t. There is something, some element of literary suspense that is critical to the genre, that is missing from Hay’s work. It is tricky to put a finger on exactly what is wrong, but upon reading the book, the slow pace and difficulty to make any headway into the novel signal that there is something wrong.
The book also does not have a satisfying ending. Like the novel itself, the conclusion is ambiguous and the reader is left wondering if any of it was actually real. In novels, there is a healthy level of ambiguity, but this seems to take it one step too far.
While The Secret of Lost Things is a bit of a disappointment on the literary mystery level, it is still worth reading, if only for the eccentric cast of characters that Hay depicts. Any book lover would probably enjoy this novel, but those outside of that characterization will most likely find it rather dull. Overall, it is worth reading – the vivid descriptions of the Arcade will make any reader wish to find employment at a bookstore.