In this debut novel, a forensic librarian uncovers letters that lead to an explanation for her father’s absence.
Vela Ostofvold is in Rome at a symposium about her work as a forensic librarian, “profiling how ephemera, inscriptions, and notations create distinct book personalities.” A rather sad, mysterious man named William Dean approaches her. He tells her that he went to school with her mother, Olivia, with whom he’s lost contact, in the Canadian town where Vela was also raised while Olivia pursued her career as an opera singer. Vela, still in Rome, then goes to the antiquarian bookstore discovered during her vacations spent with her mother. She chats with friend Amelia, who now runs the shop, and wonders if Dean could be the father she has never known. Later, Vela and Amelia are packing up Olivia’s Rome flat, since the building is being sold. In a letter of instructions, the ever traveling Olivia mentions that she plans to go to Oxford, England, to visit Penelope Arthur, her childhood teacher. Vela then finds letters from Penelope, which reveal the teacher had offered to raise Vela but went to India instead. Vela travels to Oxford, where she has a consulting project, and visits Penelope, whose memory is failing. Thanks to material provided by Penelope, however, and after another conversation with Dean, Vela finally discovers a past tragedy and her father’s identity. The novel concludes with Vela’s return to Rome and a new opportunity to reignite her romance with Franco, Amelia’s cousin. First-time novelist Sikstrom brings ambitious scope to this narrative, which encompasses a compelling family mystery, a heroine whose career could be the subject of its own series, several exotic locales, and a fairy tale–like love story. While Sikstrom is mostly successful in handling all these elements, the narrative is occasionally unbalanced. For example, Vela’s current age and home base are left a bit hazy, and there’s digressive detail about Penelope’s sojourn in India. Overall, however, this is a rich and entertaining debut.
A lush, atmospheric novel that combines literary detective work, romance and international flair.