A college student hunts for a lost Brontë artifact in this debut novel with academic overtones.
Samantha Whipple, the last of the Brontës, has at last come into her inheritance. Her beloved father, Tristan, was descended from a cousin of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s. Tristan died in a fire when Samantha was 15; a year before his death he told Sam she would someday inherit “The Warnings of Experience.” Is it a lost Brontë manuscript? A painting? A philosophy? A joke? Now a prickly first-year student at Oxford, Sam meets a banker to receive her legacy, but the shoebox she’s given contains nothing but a bookmark, the first clue in a treasure hunt. The quest takes her on a gentle jaunt through the major Brontë novels, highlights of critical theory, and Yorkshire in a storm. It makes for pleasant enough reading—Lowell has an agreeably sarcastic style and a way with similes—but poor estate planning. If you’re bothering to give a banker a shoebox, why not put the MacGuffin itself inside? Hiding the object out in the world makes no legal or practical sense. None of the usual explanations for fictional treasure hunts apply: it’s not as if rival heirs or supernatural forces are racing to get the thing first, and when Sam does eventually find it, she has no legal evidence that it belongs to her (not that Lowell seems to notice). Sam explains her father’s puzzling behavior by appealing to pedagogy: “He was trying to teach me the right way to read.” Also trying to teach her the right way to read is her professor, the handsome, brooding James Timothy Orville III, who insults her in private tutoring sessions; readers familiar with Jane Eyre will quickly see where that relationship is heading. Refreshingly, though, the novel draws its references most frequently from the work of the youngest, least interesting, and therefore least overexposed Brontë sister, Anne.
This is an entertaining and ultimately sweet story, but it’s best if you don’t think about it too hard.