Charlie Lovett collects books, writes books and even got to curate a collection of Alice in Wonderland memorabilia at the New York Public Library for two years, according to his book jacket. He divides his time between England and Winston-Salem, where he used to run an antiquarian bookstore. All in all it sounds like a very pleasant life.
And his new book – his fourth – is a very pleasant book. It offers mystery, a tad of fantasy, a smattering of religious history and romance as it tells the story of Arthur Prescott, a middle-age bibliophile who teaches literature at the University of Barchester in a small English town.
More important for this story, Arthur is a believer in the legend of King Arthur and of the Holy Grail – the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. Because of something his grandfather told him when he was a boy and from his own readings, Arthur thinks the Grail is in Barchester.
Before too long a pretty young American named Bethany is introduced. She’s there to digitize the cathedral’s centuries-old books – much to Arthur’s chagrin. Books need to be touched, he says, not read online. To which Bethany argues that books need to be shared and that her work will introduce more people to the books Arthur loves. It’s obvious from the start where this romance will end up, though there will be the usual hiccups along the way.
The plot centers around the university’s financial struggles (will they have to sell off Arthur’s beloved books?) and Arthur’s efforts – which have been half-hearted until now – to find the Grail. In the end, there is a code to crack and a secret chamber to find before the mystery can be solved, and if it all sounds like a Dan Brown book or a “National Treasure” movie, don’t be put off. Lovett tells a good story, his dialogue is witty and his characters are engaging.
And then there’s the history. Lovett breaks up the story of Arthur and his quest with short chapters that purport to tell the backstory of the Grail, touching on the early days of Christianity in England, the Norman invasion, Reformation and the English Civil War.
It’s been a few years since I dusted off my history books. My only acquaintance with King Arthur is through T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” and my knowledge of Christianity’s history is even more limited. So I have no idea how correct any of Lovett’s history is, but in the author’s note, he gives a good accounting of where he got what bits, which historical characters are real and which are invented.
Book lovers will also appreciate passages like this, where he describes the joy of paperbacks: “They accumulated brown blotches of foxing on their covers and pages and they absorbed a subtle odor that spoke of pipes and damp and long walks in the countryside. Arthur opened to his bookmark, pressed his nose into the book, and inhaled deeply. Yes, he thought, as he settled into his chair and began to read, this was going to be a wonderful afternoon.”
So make yourself a cup of proper English tea, open “The Lost Book of the Grail” and escape your busy life for an afternoon.
“The Lost Book of the Grail”
By Charlie Lovett
Viking, 317 pages
Charlie Lovett will be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7 p.m. Tuesday and at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village, near Pittsboro, at 11 a.m. Saturday.