Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl - 400 pgs

Book CoverPart mystery, part history, The Last Dickens spins the tale of the complex and multi-faceted fate of Dickens' last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Told primarily through a dual narrative style, the book examines the famous and difficult American reading tour that Dickens undertook in December of 1867, while also exploring the dark and dangerous forces that sought to steal the original manuscript from it's rightful publishers after Dickens' untimely death. With Dickens gone, the book, it seems, would not be able to be completed. But a few of the employees of the publishing house of Fields, Osgood and Co. believe that that the six final chapters may exist, hidden away by Dickens for its protection. In this hope, the company sends James Osgood and his bookkeeper Rebecca off to Dickens' ancestral home in England to seek out the missing chapters, knowing that if their discovery pans out, the company will be saved from financial ruin and that the author's pinnacle work will be forever preserved in history. But from the very beginning of the voyage other malevolent forces are at play, some that wish to possess the manuscript for themselves, and others who will do anything to make sure that those pages never see the light of day. Interspersed throughout the mystery is the tale of Dickens himself. A celebrity of the highest order in his time, Dickens sets out across America to give public readings to his adoring fans, scarcely avoiding illness, danger and the law. In these sections, Dickens comes to life as a reserved yet courageous man, both brilliant and humble. A man that gives his lifeblood to his creations and to the people that wait breathlessly for them. From the bustling wharf side docks of America to the filthy opium dens of England, Pearl creates an adventure not to be missed, and gives a stirring alternate history of the most widely speculated-on book in all of literature.

This was a wonderfully rollicking read, with a swift plot line. The action began immediately, with the apprehension of a curious criminal and a trip down to the docks where the newest installment of Dickens' great manuscript is anxiously anticipated. Soon the story was barreling along, full to the brim with dastardly mischief makers, all waiting for the chance to have Dickens' masterpiece in their clutches. From the first moment the affable James Osgood was introduced, it was easy to see that he definitely had the mettle with which to fight these foes. I really enjoyed the alternating story sections between past and present, and thought that it was a interesting and colorful way for the readers to get to know Dickens and have a first-hand look at his public and private persona, while also spinning the wildly embroiling fate of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The story was a great juxtaposition between two types of stories, and both halves were equally impressive and well rendered. This story was very unique in that it was a meld between a history both real and imagined.

In the last part of the book, the author explains that most of the sections regarding Dickens' American tour were heavily researched and as historically accurate as possible. I even came to find out that more than a handful of characters came straight out of history as well, including James Osgood. It was surprising to read that Dickens was so overwhelmingly popular during his time. I had known that he was considered one of the foremost authors in all of history, but I was unprepared to discover the depths of the public fervor for him. From what I understood, he was feverishly followed and lavish amounts of attention came his way, from both the famous and the unfamous alike. I can imagine that if there was such a thing a paparazzi back then that Dickens would have been one of their foremost attractions. I was both amused by this and a little taken aback by the lengths that people would go to just to touch an item the author himself had touched. Through it all, Dickens remained a consummate professional and always presented himself with a wonderful geniality to his admirers and maintained a humble attitude regarding his success.

One of the things I found most interesting about the book were the descriptions of the rivalries between the competing publishing houses of the time. Some looked at books as a business, rather than art or entertainment, and I was struck by how the attitudes of those forgotten times seem to be so reminiscent of the publishing world today. Another thing that stood out was the evocative and authentic historical flavor and ambiance of the book. The author did a great job with the small touches that gave the book a very realistic historical feel. The effect was transporting, and it was fun to be able to get lost in the details and setting of the book. The character creation was outstanding as well, with many unique and wonderful voices coming to life on the page. I got a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction from all the villains in this story, for there were many, and each had their own vices and loyalties. It was very diverting trying to figure out just what each character's motivations were, and I have to admit that I was shocked when many of the characters I was sure were gentlemen revealed themselves to be scoundrels. The conclusion of the book was clever as well. It was as if the author was well aware that he could not rewrite the history of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and instead formed a credible and plausible culmination that would validate both the real and the imagined.

This was a very smart read that held me spellbound with both its twisting plot and its singular characters. There was a great deal to relish in the book, and I think the author did a wonderful job of creating a narrative that one can get invested in on many levels. I also loved getting to know Charles Dickens a little better. Whether or not you are a fan of Dickens, I recommend this novel as one that is completely enveloping. An excellent read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Suko said...

This does sound interesting. I didn't realize (or remember, more likely) that Dickens was quite a celebrity in his own time. If he were alive today, he's probably be signing books at bookstores, posting on his own author website, and taking part in blog tours! The Last Dickens also seems like a valuable book about the history of the publishing industry as a business. Excellent review!

Sheila (bookjourney) said...

That is so interesting. I really enjoy reading books like this - I love to learn more about the great authors!

Melissa said...

I will have to check this one out. I had been staying away from it based on the very mixed reviews of Pearl's The Dante Club, but your review has me intrigued.

Steph said...

I have Pearl's "The Dante Club" at home, but I haven't read it yet! As I've said before, I've never been able to get into Dickens, BUT I this kind of literary thriller sounds like something I would really enjoy (after all, I have nothing Dickens himself, I just don't like reading him!). I read Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas a while back (which revolves around The Three Musketeers to some extent) and really enjoyed that despite not having read the original source material.

bermudaonion said...

I became fascinated with Dickens and that time period when I read Drood. I bet the details of the publishing houses was an interesting aspect of this book. Great review.

Ana S. said...

The premise reminded me of Drood - not that this doesn't sound like it's very much its own thing! I definitely want to read it.

Gwendolyn B. said...

I've been following a blog tour for this book and really looking forward to reading - at some point! Yours is one of the best-written reviews I've read. Nice job!

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