Sunday 8 December 2019

#CBR11 Book 84: "The Book of Speculation" by Erika Swyler

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Official book description:
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?

One of the many reading challenges I'm doing this year is the Monthly Motif Challenge, and for October, the challenge was "Read a book set in a theater, an amusement park, a circus, or a book involving magic, illusions, or characters with special powers." This was pretty much the only TBR book I had involving a circus. It features a lot of things I usually like, librarians, old books, intricate family histories, folklore, mysterious curses and a romantic subplot, yet it failed to really wow me.

Simon spends pretty much all his time not working in a library desperately trying to keep his childhood home from falling apart. After his mother committed suicide in the water nearby, his father just refused to do any work on it, and now it's getting so bad Simon's no longer sure he can save it. Nevertheless, he keeps trying, as he doesn't want to lose the connection to his past, and he wants his younger sister Enola to have something to come back to when she's ready for it.

He's sent a mysterious old book by an antiquarian who claims that it is relevant to his family history. While he initially dismisses the claim, he gets more and more caught up in the tales told in the book's pages, and as he keeps digging, he discovers that his mother is just the last in a long line of women in his family who, despite being absolutely amazing swimmers, able to hold their breaths for unprecedented amounts of time, they have all died by drowning, on the exact same date. As Enola suddenly returns after several years' absence, and the fateful date is approaching fast, Simon becomes terrified that the curse will strike her as well, unless he finds a way to stop it.

I liked the historical bits of the novel, the ones exploring how the curse came to start in the first place, to be the most interesting, but even those sections failed to entirely hold my attention. I also found some aspects of the story to just be too difficult to suspend my disbelief about, and I genuinely couldn't understand why Simon would spend so much time, money and effort to try to save a crumbling old house, especially considering his memories concerning it were more negative than happy.

It's a definite downside when I fail to entirely connect with the protagonist of a novel. Here, I just didn't care all that much about Simon. I liked Enola a lot better, as well as his fellow librarian/childhood friend (although I think she could do way better romance wise). Still, a lot of the Eastern folklore bits in the historical sections of the book, as well as the depictions of the travelling circus were good.

I don't regret getting this book in a sale, or the time I spent reading it, but I doubt I'll ever feel the need to re-read it, either.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm wondering the publisher made a conscious choice to have a woman holding a stack of old books on the cover is because this book is clearly aimed more at a female than a male audience, and it was assumed that this would be more appealing? We basically see the story through the eyes of several men, our protagonist himself being a librarian. It seems a bit odd to me to have the pile of books being carried by a woman (even though, yes, there are lady librarians in the book, as well).

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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