In The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay, Lucy Alling loves working in an antique store, specializing in the books section. But in order to make her beloved books more special and valuable to customers, she incorporates several questionable practices. Her boss has no idea and would not approve if he did know.
When a handsome customer, James, comes in the store to find a gift for his grandmother, they hit it off and begin dating. But he soon finds that Lucy often embellishes the truth. She explains that her father was a con man, and she grew up with his stories. He loved classic stories, but he also made up many of his own. She hasn’t seen him in years. She “promised never to be like him and now…I suddenly hear myself and I am like him,” and her stories don’t sound quite so good when she recounts them to James, yet she feels compelled to make up stories even for things like getting seated at a restaurant without a reservation or getting a needed item for the store. Later when he finds out that she “embellished” the book he had bought for his grandmother, he breaks up with Lucy.
Oddly, however, James’s grandmother, Helen, who was quite taken with Lucy, has decided, against her family’s wishes, to take a trip to London and asks Lucy to go with her as a consultant. Lucy is not excited about the idea but eventually agrees, especially when she realizes there is a possibility they might be traveling near the place where she believes her father is.
As Helen and Lucy travel and each share their stories, Lucy realizes Helen has secrets of her own and a wrong in her past that she is trying to make right. Part of their travel takes them to antique stores, part to places of literary value, like the Bronte sisters’ home, and part to take care of the issue Helen needs to deal with.
As Lucy searches for her father, it almost seems that she feels doomed to follow in his steps since she shares his genes. But she learns that she can make her choices despite what he does, and determines to make things right with her boss and customers as much as she can, despite the risk to her reputation and job.
Reay’s specialty in all her books so far is weaving a plethora of literary references into her stories. I’m sadly not as familiar with the Bronte’s works except for Jane Eyre (one of my favorites), but I enjoyed getting to know more of their background and plan to read more of them in the future. Reay also quotes Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, and Lewis here (and possibly others I am not remembering), but she doesn’t just quote them – she incorporates something of their stories into her heroine’s story. One of my favorite quotes from this book, referencing Jane Eyre, is:
Lucy reached in her bag and pulled out the book, knowing exactly where to search. “I thank my Maker, that, in the midst of judgment, he has remembered mercy. I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto.” There it was. Mercy. Grace. And just as she’d told James, fiction conveyed change and truth and was loved and digested again and again because it reflected the worst, the best, and all the moments in between of the human experience (p. 267).
A couple of other favorite quotes:
All real lives hold controversy, trials, mistakes, and regrets. What matters is what you do next.
All the books have it . . . That time when you don’t know where you’ll be, but you can’t stay as you are. In life or in literature, that time rarely feels good (p. 31).
I thought all the characters were richly drawn, even the secondary characters like Dillon, their driver in England or Sid, Lucy’s boss. Looking through a few reviews here and there, I saw that many said they didn’t like Lucy. I think that’s because, though all characters should be flawed because no one is perfect, we’re hit with hers right off the bat. But I did like her as a person and sympathized with her in her journey.
It’s kind of ironic that reviews by non-Christians criticized the Christian element and reviews by Christians criticized that there was not much of a faith element. At first I felt the faith element was lacking because I didn’t recall Lucy making changes due to anything like repentance or a regard for having sinned against God, but I had forgotten the quote above referring to mercy and grace. As I went back and looked it up, in context she’s pondering her actions and thinks of Rochester in Jane Eyre: “Rochester couldn’t move–could never move–forward because he hadn’t gone back. He hadn’t laid down his sin and accepted that there was an absolute right” (p. 267). Then comes the quote from Jane about mercy and grace. So I did feel it was there, though perhaps a little more subtle than much Christian fiction. As I’ve mentioned in The Gospel and Christian Fiction and Why Read Christian Fiction?, it’s understandable that the nature of some stories would require more nuance (after all, the book of Esther does not mention God at all, but alert readers will see His hand there). But my only criticism of this book was that I did feel it was a little light in this department.
Nevertheless, all in all I enjoyed it very much. To me one sign of a great book is when you keep thinking of it and uncovering things about it long after turning the last page, and I definitely experienced that with this book.
If you’ve got half an hour, this interview with Katherine Reay was fun to listen to. I really enjoyed it, especially hearing the symbolism behind a scene that I hadn’t caught when I read it and some of the background information behind each of her books.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)