I used part of my Thanksgiving holiday to play Mimi to three kids who have already moved on to Christmas (and the all-important list), and the other part to relax and catch up on my reading. Today I finished The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler.
Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.
One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away.
As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?
The cover synopsis pulled me in far enough to buy, but that was as interested as I became.
The premise of the story (a curse within a family of circus performers) was great and more original than many of the books available today. Both the carnival and the watery Long Island Sound backdrops made for nice settings. Although I’ve read many books that were written between past and present time, this book had a patched together feel to it (I personally attribute that to the POV shifts I mention below).
The biggest positive of the book was most of the writing. Swyler tells her story through such a poetic voice, a style reminiscent of 19th-century writing. It tends to be a bit over-written at times, but for the most part, very poetic – for those who prefer their reads a bit more literary.
I enjoyed both storylines, although as I mentioned, the constant switching in POV and the switches between first and third person became monotonous. I can only guess why the author chose to write it that way, but rather than to give the carnival scenes a far-off feel and the present time an immediate feel, I simply felt a disconnect.
Another positive was her unique take on description. Flowery, but not overly so. Vivid. She relied heavily on metaphor and in most cases; they were original and well done. In my opinion, the description was what allowed me to finish through to the end.
The biggest negative would be the characters. They bored me, silly. Simon, the main character, was probably the flattest character of them all. I felt no real connection to him and by the end of the book, he felt like little more than a cardboard cutout of the man the author might have envisioned.
I would recommend this to a reader who prefers their books more literary than commercial, but even a fan will struggle with the characters and the way the story is put together. If voice, style, and poetic flow make or break the book, you’ll enjoy it.
I usually like a book more than its adapted movie, but in this case, I think it would make a better movie. The story is magical, mysterious, and dark enough to be visually appealing and the right actor could breathe life into the characters where the author failed to do so.
Although it had its moment, I would give it 3-stars on the generous side.