Author: Matthew Pearl
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (Oct. 6, 2009)
Trade Paperback, 416 pages, $15.00
Despite literary talent such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston-based publisher Fields & Osgood is facing economic catastrophe. The publishing house’s survival may depend on their shining star, celebrated British novelist Charles Dickens. As Dickens’s only authorized American publisher, Fields & Osgood hope that The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’s first novel in five years, will bolster sales enough to avoid financial ruin.
The unexpected death of Charles Dickens in June of 1870 leaves The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished. James Osgood entrusts Daniel Sand, a young but industrious clerk, with the task of retrieving Dickens’s final, incomplete manuscript as soon as it arrives in Boston. But when Daniel is found dead -- without the manuscript in his possession -- is his death simply a tragic accident or something more sinister?
With the fate of the publishing house very much in doubt, James Osgood and Rebecca Sand, Daniel’s sister and a bookkeeper at Fields & Osgood travel to England to see if Dickens left any clues as to how his final book would end. Osgood and Rebecca soon find that they are not the only ones looking for Dickens’s last work, and there is much more on the line than just a manuscript. Events that were set in motion two years earlier during Charles Dickens’s American reading tour will provide surprising answers and provoke new questions. Their journey will take them from the Dickens family home, Gadshill Place, to the opium dens of London and finally back to Boston in a deadly game of literary cat-and-mouse.
I greatly enjoyed the characters of James Osgood and Rebecca Sand but my favorite parts of the novel were the flashbacks to Charles Dickens’s American tour. Dickens is described as “a man with exclamation points for eyes” and that bubbly vitality was present in Pearl’s characterization of Dickens. There’s something universal about Charles Dickens. The endurance of his works are perfect evidence of this. I thought Matthew Pearl expressed the reasons for Dickens’s continual appeal exceptionally well in this passage:
“Dickens alone, among all the writers of popular fiction of the day, could employ wit and discernment, excitement and sympathy, in equal parts in each one of his books. The characters were no mere paper dolls, nor were they thinly veiled extensions of Charles Dickens’s own persona. No, the characters were utterly themselves. In a Dickens story, readers were not asked to aspire to a higher class or to hate other classes than their own but to find the humanity and the humane in all. That is what had made him the world’s most famous author.” -- p. 33
During most of the book, the story alternates between two main storylines: that of Osgood and Rebecca and that of Dickens’s American tour. There is also a third subplot involving Frank Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens, in India. The two main storylines come together well by the end of the novel, but I felt that Frank Dickens’s storyline needed a clearer resolution. And, while I liked Rebecca as a character, I wondered more than once if she came across as a bit too modern for the time period. If I had to sum up The Last Dickens in one word, it would be subtle. It’s a book that rewards the patient and observant reader as the story progresses. Major revelations are presented without fanfare, and somehow seem more powerful for it.
Some readers may wonder how The Last Dickens compares to Drood by Dan Simmons. If not for the common theme of Charles Dickens and his last work, I think it would be almost unfair to compare the two. They are two very different stories. I enjoyed both of them, each for their own reasons, and I can’t say that I preferred one over the other. My favorite aspect of Drood was how Victorian London came fully to life, almost as though it were a character in itself. I didn’t have the same sense of time and place with The Last Dickens, even though Boston and London were both well-portrayed. The Last Dickens shows Charles Dickens in a kinder and more objective light than the reader receives from Drood’s narrator, Wilkie Collins. I suspect that The Last Dickens will have more mass appeal due to its less intimidating length and more likable characters. Both are worth reading for anyone who enjoys literary fiction. Both are must-reads for anyone with an interest in Charles Dickens.
This was my first experience with Matthew Pearl's writing, but it most certainly will not be the last.
The Last Dickens was released in trade paperback yesterday. Visit Matthew Pearl's website for more information.
Thanks to TLC Tours and the publisher, I have a copy of The Last Dickens to give away to a lucky reader. U.S. or Canadian residents only, please. I'll announce the winner a week from today. Please include a valid e-mail address so I have a way to contact you if you win!
Edit: This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to the winner, BermudaOnion!