It was old. You could see that from the worn, dark cloth binding. The corners were frayed, and the fabric was so stained that I couldn’t even tell what color it must once have been. Gray? Brown? Blue? I lifted the book carefully out of its hiding place. It was heavier than I’d expected, and warmer. Alive, I thought, and the thought startled me.
—The Forgotten Book, by Mechthild Gläser
Mechthild Gläser’s The Forgotten Book sounded like a perfect match for me: Set at a boarding school! In a castle! Inspired in part by Jane Austen! A supernatural mystery with romance and Gothic overtones! A love interest named—wait for it!—DARCY DE WINTER!
Plot twist: It was not a perfect match for me.
Sixteen-year-old Emma Magdalena Morgenroth is back at her beloved Stolzenburg School for Year Eleven. While clearing out a long-unused room to use for her new literature club—she hasn’t asked for permission but as her father is the headmaster of the school, she has free rein to do pretty much whatever she wants—she finds an old book in a hidden compartment. The book looks like a diary of sorts, with dated entries that chronicle events in and around the school—but the entries span centuries, and were clearly written by a number of different people.
Emma decides to add an entry, and almost immediately realizes that this book is both very special and very dangerous… because whatever you write in it comes true.
I’m sitting here trying to think of a single solid positive thing to say about this book, but I’ve got nothing.
The central romance relies entirely on the reader’s familiarity with Pride & Prejudice—without the Lizzie/Darcy parallels, there is nothing there. The pacing is uneven, with some passages reading like they’re stuck on fast-forward and some scenes that feel like barely sketched-in placeholders from a rough draft. It’s repetitive—by the third or fourth time Emma told me about being being elected school council rep, I had to restrain myself from launching my Kindle across the room—and a good deal of the plotting relies on the characters keeping vital pieces of information from one another for no good reason.
The characterization ranges from two-dimensional to inconsistent. Emma’s voice is largely forgettable, and wouldn’t feel out of place in a YA novel from the 1970s or 1980s. She’s supposed to be sixteen—we know that because she tells us at least five times, I counted—but has the emotional maturity of a ten-year-old:
I lowered the nib of my fountain pen slowly onto the paper and wrote August 2017, carefully and very neatly, at the top of the next blank page. Yes, it looked good. And it made me feel important. Important and grown up.
Which makes it especially jarring when she uses the phrasing of a sixty-five-year-old:
His pale blue eyes sparkled, and only now did I spot a little smudge of dirt of his left cheek, which gave him a slightly bohemian look.
Relatedly, the dialogue is stiff and stilted, and the phrasing reads borderline robotic at points—like some of it was run through Google Translate. I honestly don’t know if that issue should be chalked up to the translation—this book was written and originally published in German—or to the original text or to a combination of the two.
Or could this all be a matter of me being ignorant about German literary conventions? Maybe?
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.