Lost in a Good Book
Published by Viking
416 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Think Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide. Think Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" series. Think a startlingly original literary universe with time travel, exploration of new dimensions and a wickedly rich sense of humor.
There isn't a name for the literary genre that combines elements of science fiction, mystery and fantasy with huge dollops of social satire, but it's about time there should be. Maybe social sci-tire? Funtasy?
Whatever it ends up being called, that's what British author Jasper Fforde is writing. His dazzling first novel, The Eyre Affair (2002), introduced the time-traveling sleuth Thursday Next, a spirited young cop who operates in a universe that diverged subtly from ours about the time of the 1850s Crimean War. The sequel, Lost in a Good Book, is an even richer romp through this strange world, replete with pet dodos, Neanderthal transit drivers and a travel tube through the center of the earth that connects London with Sydney. Literature is treasured, and the theft of books a serious felony. Time travel is possible (though outlawed) and a few people, among them Thursday's eccentric uncle Mycroft, have experimented with ways of traveling into literature. A sinister megacorporation called Goliath controls most of the means of production and communication in the Western world.
Lost in a Good Book opens with Thursday a reluctant celebrity, thanks to her actions in Fforde's previous novel. As a member of the Literary Detectives division of Special Ops, she had pursued the literary criminal Acheron Hades into the pages of Jane Eyre, where she foiled his dastardly attempt to kill the protagonist and rewrite Charlotte Brontë's classic gothic romance. But her propensity to question authority has her back in trouble by the end of Good Book's first chapter. She's now evading Spec Ops' hilariously overbearing PR lady, Cordelia Flakk, and insulting heavy-handed Goliath executive Mr. Schitt-Hawse, whose evil half-brother, Jack Schitt, she left imprisoned in Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" during the course of the Eyre case.
Newly married to her longtime boyfriend, Landen Park-Laine, Thursday has just discovered that she's pregnant. This seems a rather low-key start to a thriller. But then her beloved dad, a time-traveling outlaw, enlists her help to interfere with a chain of innocent-seeming events he believes will lead to the end of the world. Thursday's first assignment is to pose as a hitchhiker, catching a ride with a reckless driver who, save for her timely warning, would have hit and killed a cyclist, triggering the chain reaction:
Mind the cyclist, I said, as we rounded the corner. The driver stamped on the brake and swerved past the man on the bike.
Fforde's wildly inventive story takes off as Thursday's unauthorized time traveling on her father's behalf incurs the wrath of her uptight superiors. After an unpleasant disciplinary hearing, she returns home to discover something terribly wrong. Her pet dodo is still in the flat, but all traces of Landen have been erased. Soon Thursday realizes that someone (Her father's enemies? Schitt-Hawse? Or perhaps somebody seeking revenge on behalf of Acheron Hades?) has altered the stream of time so that Landen died as a child in a car accident. Thursday is still pregnant, but now she has no idea who the father could be. (Her attempts to find out who she's been dating lead to embarrassing misunderstandings.)
Schitt-Hawse and his thugs promise Thursday that they'll bring Landen back -- if she releases Jack Schitt from "The Raven." Thursday is willing to strike a deal, as long as she can figure out how to get back into the world of books. Uncle Mycroft, whose experimental literary portal helped her solve the Eyre case, has retired -- disappeared, in fact, to prevent Goliath from forcing him to re-create his device for that company's nefarious purposes. But Thursday's grandmother, a fearsome old gal reminiscent of Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax, teaches Thursday how to read her way into the realm for literature through a book. They start simply, with The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, but Thursday is unable to get past the story of Farmer McGregor and his wife. "I think their marriage is in trouble," she tells Gran. "She describes him as a 'silly old man' and 'a doddering fool.'"
"How did you know she called him a 'doddering old fool?'
After honing her skills on Robinson Crusoe (a coconut appears on the floor) Thursday reads herself into the realm of Jurisfiction, where literary characters police popular fiction from the inside. The place is run by the Cheshire Cat (now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat, due to a change of county boundaries), who explains that the works of Poe are so dangerous that they are strictly off limits even to experienced Jurisfiction operatives. On the cat's advice, Thursday reads her way next into Great Expectations and signs on as an apprentice to Charles Dickens' man-hating Miss Havisham.
The principal plot and numerous subplots of Lost in a Good Book grow increasingly absurd, but this novel is securely anchored by the unflappably realistic and sympathetic Thursday. She misses her husband, she's worried about her baby and she is loyal to her quixotic father. Thursday is humbled when she discovers that her mom, who the family has always dismissed as a dingbat, is in fact a woman of deep courage and experience who was herself a high-level time-traveling operative before settling down in one time and place to raise three children in her husband's absence. To Thursday's delight, Landen appears to her in dreams based on her memories of their time together. Unfortunately, so does that arch-fiend Hades, leading to a howlingly funny dream sequence in which she introduces the two men in a cozy tearoom; while munching scones, Hades tells the young couple about the woman he loved -- and murdered.
Fforde employs his time-travel paradigms to give Lost in a Good Book an ending that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Some of the mysteries strewn in Thursday's path resolve themselves: her father revises his theory about the end of the world, Miss Havisham confronts Schitt-Hawse, and Raffles the gentleman burglar -- a Jurisfiction agent -- gets involved in Thursday's Spec Ops work. But also, a new arch-fiend appears, leaving readers anxious to know what will happen to Thursday -- and her baby -- in the next installment of this provocative series. | April 2003
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.