(Book Review) The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

bronteFor the first two months of 2015 I read nothing but Victorian novels, taking in all of Thomas Hardy’s major works, some Gaskell and Dickens and filling in the gaps in my reading of the Bronte sisters, among others. I was obsessed. By the end of February I was even starting to think and talk like a Victorian and wonder why I wasn’t wearing a bustle and hiring a governess. I had to be forcibly dragged away from my beautiful Penguin English Library collection and rehabbed with modern fiction. It was hard, but I made it.

While all of this makes me, perhaps, a little strange, it also means I found common ground with Lucy Alling, the main character in Katherine Reay’s The Bronte Plot; Lucy sells rare books for a living and has a particular affinity with my beloved Victorians. Her  passion for the books leads her to some dubious courses of action which are swiftly discovered, causing Lucy a number of issues in her relationships, her career, and her own sense of identity.  There are various subplots involving Lucy’s long-estranged father and her fears about ways in which she might resemble him, as well as her romantic relationship and how her less-than-legal actions impact it. Things start quite slowly but, before the novel reaches its halfway point, Reay’s story has real momentum.  As someone who values their sleep very, very highly, I can offer this novel no greater praise than that I had to stay up past 11 p.m. (I know, I’m a rebel; don’t tell my mother) to see how it resolved itself.  The relationships are compelling and I developed a particular love for Helen, who leads Lucy on a literary adventure which I would quite like to follow myself.

The novel begins in Chicago and ends in Haworth in the Yorkshire Moors, home of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte.  It was this section which resonated the most with me, probably because I live very near Haworth and have visited it several times, on each occasion experiencing the same kind of awe and wonder that Lucy feels.  To me it is quite a magical place, and I think Reay has captured this effectively. While in London, Lucy is told, “The rain won’t keep you from much in the city, but Haworth might be different,” which also made me smile; Yorkshire is a beautiful place to live and to visit but nobody coming here should do so without a waterproof coat and sturdy umbrella.

Lucy and, I assume, the author have a real understanding of the lives of the Bronte sisters and a deep empathy for their work and this gives the fan of 19th century literature excellent reasons for seeking out The Bronte Plot.  At one point another character says to Lucy, “I’ve never heard anyone talk about books like you do.  It’s like they’re your friends,” which had me nodding like a crazy person, as did Lucy’s repost: “Reading forms your opinions, your worldview, especially childhood reading, and anything that does that has an impact.  So call them friends, call some stories enemies if your want, but don’t deny their influence.” There are a few of these lovely meta-moments when Reay ruminates on the significance of reading and I really enjoyed them.

Aside from my private literary obsessions, Reay’s novel offers plenty to think about. I finished the book two days ago but am still wondering about Lucy and why she makes some of her choices; the sections of the novel which concern her father are particularly engaging in this respect and I hope someone I know will read the book so I can share my theories with them (probably while they pretend to be taking a phone call or fake a medical emergency). I admired Reay’s deftness of touch; she brings in some heavy issues here but does so without becoming mawkish or overly sentimental.  In this way and others The Bronte Plot uses and echoes aspects of the work of the eponymous sisters, which I also liked; a conversation on the Moors late in the novel provides a lovely counterpoint to Jane Eyre in particular.

The Bronte Plot has a lot going for it, but it isn’t flawless; other readers who feel they should have been born in 19th century London may, like me, raise an eyebrow at some of the references to the novels of the period (Wives and Daughters, for example, is referred to as having a “last sublime scene” which certainly wasn’t my response to the novel that Gaskell died before finishing). I would imagine a lot of readers won’t notice or care about this and those who do may, like me, perversely enjoy having an imaginary literary argument with Lucy about it.  Additionally, at one point the characters eat in an Indian restaurant and order dessert: I have enjoyed many a curry and am an admirer of such eateries, but I have never, ever witnessed anyone eat dessert in one.

The Bronte Plot is an engaging and easy read, but one that offers plenty to think about too; for the most part, I think someone with little knowledge of the period with which the protagonist is so fascinated would enjoy it, while it should also appeal to those who love the Victorian novelists like distant cousins and possibly require some sort of intervention for this. Not that I know anyone like that, obviously.

The Bronte Plot will be available soon at Greenville Public Library. Reserve a copy today.