Uncle Bertram understood her in a way her father never could. It wasn’t just that they both loved books. It was that Sophie, as a little girl, had yearned for mystery and adventure – something beyond her ordinary life at Bayfield House. At home she had to settle for getting her mystery from books, but her visits with Bertram were filled with adventure.
– First Impressions by Charlie Lovett
First Impressions by Charlie Lovett
First Impressions is a mystery novel about a young woman and bibliophile named Sophie who, while working in a bookshop, is asked to find an obscure copy of a novel, A Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. In her search, Sophie begins to draw connections between this strange request and the much more well-known Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She comes to understand that A Little Book of Allegories, if found, may provide proof that Jane Austen was not in fact the true author of Pride and Prejudice, and had in fact copied the original story from Richard Mansfield and published it under her own name. However, Sophie is not the only one looking for the book, and the more she uncovers about Jane Austen’s work, the greater the danger that faces her in the present.
The telling of First Impressions is split between the present, from Sophie’s perspective, and the past, through the eyes of Jane Austen. This structure worked remarkably well for the the telling of the story. In the present, of course, Sophie knows very little about the connection between Jane Austen and Richard Mansfield, but by allowing the reader to see Jane Austen’s close relationship with the older man, the reader is able to more fully appreciate Richard Mansfield as a friend and role model. This insight lets the reader fully appreciate all that Sophie was missing – when Sophie first discovers the connection and first begins to worry that there might be a reason to doubt the authorship of Pride and Prejudice, the reader has already seen the close friendship that developed between Jane Austen and Richard Mansfield, and understands why Sophie’s concerns are ill-founded. However, given the large stretch of time between the two characters, this greatly enhanced the urgency of the reading. The reader, perhaps, understands the connection, but that does not guarantee that Sophie will come to the same conclusions.
Most of the novel was spent during Sophie’s time, as she worked to unravel the mystery of Pride and Prejudice‘s authorship, and it would have been easy to dismiss the development of Sophie’s world in favor of Jane Austen’s. However, Lovett did an excellent job of giving the reader a sense of the place that surrounds Sophie. Perhaps best of all was the apartment where Sophie’s Uncle Bertram lived. When Sophie stepped into the apartment for the first time before the reader, the apartment instantly had a life of its own – the scent of the books, the image of the overflowing bookshelves – this was absolutely necessary to help the reader understand why Uncle Bertram’s apartment was more of a home to Sophie than her own country home. Lovett was persistent in her attention to the details of Sophie’s world as the novel progressed. At the risk of providing a spoiler, some of the final scenes of the book take place in Richard Mansfield’s home, and it was fascinating to see the overlap of descriptions – how things appeared during Jane Austen’s time, and what that same world looked liked centuries later, when Sophie sees them.
In all, I would rate First Impressions an 8 out of 10. It filled my needs for a mystery novel, and the plot kept me highly engaged. However, there was nothing remarkably original about the book – it did not break any molds or introduce any unusual ideas. I would recommend the book for lovers of mystery novels, and would definitely recommend it for Jane Austen fans that want a glimpse into the (possible) mind and life of such a great writer.