Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, historical fiction, historical romance, magical realism, mystery
Published by Lake Union Publishing on March 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
Rare-book dealer Ashlyn Greer’s affinity for books extends beyond the intoxicating scent of old paper, ink, and leather. She can feel the echoes of the books’ previous owners—an emotional fingerprint only she can read. When Ashlyn discovers a pair of beautifully bound volumes that appear to have never been published, her gift quickly becomes an obsession. Not only is each inscribed with a startling incrimination, but the authors, Hemi and Belle, tell conflicting sides of a tragic romance.
With no trace of how these mysterious books came into the world, Ashlyn is caught up in a decades-old literary mystery, beckoned by two hearts in ruins, whoever they were, wherever they are. Determined to learn the truth behind the doomed lovers’ tale, she reads on, following a trail of broken promises and seemingly unforgivable betrayals. The more Ashlyn learns about Hemi and Belle, the nearer she comes to bringing closure to their love story—and to the unfinished chapters of her own life.
Instead of Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Echo of Old Books is a tale of Four Tragedies and an HEA – at least – and on both counts. The story folds together the bitter and the sweet into a saga that begins in mystery, middles in anger and ends in hope while it puts the readers, both of the story and within the story, through a wringer of emotions, keeping them turning the pages of not just the book in hand, but of the two mysterious books within.
It all begins with Hemi and Belle and the two seemingly anonymous, most likely privately published books that hold their separate perspectives on their clearly doomed, inevitably tragic WW2-era romance. But those little books are only the beginning of the web that has been woven.
A web that catches rare-book dealer Ashlyn Greer within its sticky strands. At first, she is snared by the emotions that she can feel pouring off the pages. And then by the mystery of how these two books came to be.
She knows, with her gift of psychometry, that the emotions held within the pages are real – but can’t be certain whether the story told within is the true story of the seemingly star-crossed lovers or merely a fiction intended to conceal a deeper emotional truth.
As she reads, and as we read with her, she also becomes caught up in the puzzle of it all. Were Hemi and Belle real? If so, who were they? And how far will she need to travel in order to learn that truth?
Her search takes her to an intrepid librarian who ferrets out much of the historical data with a twinkle in her eye and a spring in her step. But the real treasure trove of information comes from Ethan Manning, who brought the books – along with many other considerably more mundane works – from his late father’s library to the used bookstore where Ashlyn first encountered Remembering Belle and Belle’s response in Forever, and Other Stories.
Together they read the story of his great-aunt Marian (nicknamed Belle in the books) and the love of her life. Whoever he was and however he broke her heart – just as she broke his. Along the way, they learn more than either of them wanted to know about a past that STILL isn’t quite dead.
And discover that the tragedies locked in their own pasts do not mean that they can’t find a brighter future, if they can just manage to paradoxically, let it go.
Escape Rating A: I’m pretty sure I initially grabbed this for the cover. Because books. Seemingly endless stacks of books. I couldn’t resist the story even if I can now manage to walk out of a bookstore without carrying stacks of books out with me, if only because text is hard these days and ebooks are much easier to read and to carry.
Howsomever, I moved this book to a bit earlier in the week for two reasons. One, I was hoping for an unequivocal happy ending, which wasn’t possible in some of this week’s books and seemed disappointingly out of reach in yesterday’s.
But even if this did not turn out to have a happy ending I could tell that it was at least going to have a cathartic resolution of some kind. Even if that resolution was bittersweet or downright sad. I needed something definitive, and I most definitely got it in this absorbing, compulsive page-turner.
I got all of that and more in The Echo of Old Books.
This is kind of a timeslip story, and it’s also more than a bit of a treasure hunt story. And appropriately, it’s the timeslip, the story within the books themselves, that grabs both Ashlyn and the reader first. So the story of Belle and Hemi dominates the early parts of the narrative in a way that is both clever and absorbing.
We also start out Belle and Hemi’s story knowing it’s going to be tragic, so it’s not exactly a spoiler that their 1941 idyll gets, well, spoiled. What we, and Ashlyn, are desperate to learn is how. And the way that the story spools out, at first being a whole lot of Belle and Hemi with only hints of Ashlyn, carefully shifts over the course of the story to less and less of the past – even as it gets more searing and races towards its seemingly inevitable denouement – and more of Ashlyn and now Ethan’s presents.
And their own searing, scarring pasts. The more we learn about both couples, the more we hope for HEAs all around – no matter how impossible that might seem. We become invested in both stories every bit as much as Ashlyn does Belle’s.
The Echo of Old Books was absolutely the right book at the right time for this reader, with its combination of historical mystery, tragic romance and historical ambiance both in Belle and Hemi’s 1941 and Ashlyn and Ethan’s “present day” of 1984.
I’m definitely going to be snapping up this author’s next book as soon as I see it. In the meantime, I’ll be picking up a copy of her next most recent book, The Keeper of Happy Endings, for the next time I need a book with an absorbing puzzle, a bit of an ugly cry in the middle, and satisfying, cathartic resolution with hopes of an HEA to keep me turning pages until the heartstopping end.