Book review: The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

Life, we have all sagely observed at one point or another, does not come with a great many, if any, guarantees.

One of the few things we can all agree is relatively set in stone is how we were raised and how that upbringing shaped who we are as adults and how we react to and interact with the world.

But what if, like Miranda Brooks, an eight grade history teacher based in Philadelphia with fellow educator boyfriend Jay, you find out that one bedrock of your life is not at all what you thought it be?

What on earth do you do with that kind of life shaking information?

That is the core narrative driver of the superbly well-written and gloriously resonant novel, The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson, which asks the big questions about nature, nurture and what happens when we thought we were may not be who we are at all?

Or at the very least, not the full picture of who we thought we were.

This unexpected journey of discovery occurs when Miranda is drawn back to her hometown of Los Angeles to attend the funeral of her once-beloved Uncle Billy, a famously undependable but outrageously fun uncle who dipped in and out of his niece’s life with rambunctious alacrity, one time even with a forbidden puppy in tow, until on Miranda’s 12th birthday, he disappeared for good, following an argument with Miranda’s mother, never to be seen again.

That’s my favorite girl, Billy said as I hopped into the car. He always called me that, his favorite girl. It would have embarrassed me if my parents said anything so sappy. With Billy, it made me feel like the kid I still wanted to be but knew at age twelve was no longer cool. We turned out of the driveway, and my house retreated into the distance. I wondered if Mom was watching us leave from her bedroom window.” (P. 13)

Like all of us who have experienced the loss of someone special in our lives, Miranda has craved some sort of closure or reconnection with her uncle, the owner of Prospero Books in the fashionable neighbourhood of Silver Lake, but when she returns home for Billy’s funeral, one her mother and father mysteriously refuse to attend, Miranda has to confront the fact that that will never happen.

She also has to deal with a surly bookstore manager in Malcolm, happy bookstore workers Charlie and Lucia, and longtime customers, all of whom help her embrace her inherited ownership of Prospero Books, a place that figured prominently in the life of a young Miranda whose happiest moments revolved around reading and visits to the bookstore where she would always be gifted a very special book of some kind.

Her greatest challenge, and thrill in some ways, is the final scavenger hunt Billy has left, with clues contained within various books in the store including, most famously The Tempest (after which Prospero and Miranda are named and which figure prominently in the life of her family), Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fear of Flying, Persuasion and The Grapes of Wrath.

It’s a very literary journey of discovery which illustrates how much of this luminously rich novel exists as a passionate love letter to the books and bookstores and how they can unite a family or group of friends, or both, in richly important ways.

(image courtesy official author site)

Certainly, Miranda and Billy are forever linked by their shared love of the written word, a commonality that binds them tightly in death as it did while her uncle was alive, and which, while enduring, soon points to the fact that Miranda has to choose whether she stays in the past, where her family feels somewhat stuck fast, or whether they takes bold steps into an open and rejuvenated future.

The Bookshop of Yesterday exists then as a homage to what has gone before and enriched us, and that which holds us back unless we choose to step forward to paths news and journeys afresh (all very cheesy, Miranda observes to Malcolm but essentially true of her situation), a crossroads of sort for Miranda and many of the people, old and new, in her life.

Miranda does indeed go on a long and emotionally complicated journey, reevaluating as she does who she is, who her family is and what it means to her and how and in what kind of order.

It’s a lot to deal with, and as you might expect, it’s a curve ball of epic proportions that comes with a great deal of emotional upheaval, bad and good, the kind that feels both terrifying and freeing depending on your perspective and where you are in the process.

It’s a privilege to go with Miranda on her journey, one realised with warmth, compassion, humour, dislocation, pain and loss but which always feel authentically human and true to the lived experience of many people.

We may not have quite the dramatic trajectory of Miranda who turns up for a funeral and some sense of closure but ends with a great deal more than that, but many of us have had cause at some point or another to look at hard at who we are and what our life is like, and so in that respect, there’s a rich truth to much of what appears The Bookshop of Yesterday.

“‘I don’t want to fight, either,’ I whispered, holding her [my mother] tighter. That didn’t change the fact that we were fighting. Not in screaming matches, in you’re a terrible mother or you’re an ungrateful daughter. We were fighting in everything we weren’t saying, in the intensity of our embrace, in the fact that, eventually, we’d have to loosen our grip. We’d have to let each other go.” (P. 128)

It is a book, by the way, that may sound like a twee, sweet lilting waltz through some major life changes, but whose story, emotions and import are a great deal more muscular and impacting than that.

As brutally honest as it is whimsically wonderful – it is, after all, set in part in a bookshop and while that doesn’t preclude sadness or pain (as Miranda, Malcolm and the others know all too well) – The Bookshop of Yesterday has strength and presence because it dares to treat life as something capable of big, extraordinary surprises and change, good and bad, which we will eventually make our peace with but not without some sizeable changes along the way.

One great element that runs through the book, in addition to its grand and evocative paean to reading and bookshops, is the way in which we never have to face these major challenges alone.

We can choose to, of course, and certainly for much of the book that is precisely what Miranda, much like her father and mother chooses to do, but in the end, real meaningful change and healing comes from being willing to be vulnerable, to be part of other peoples’ lives and let them into your own in a way that isn’t surface deep but goes to the heart of who we are.

Is that scary? Of course it is, but as Meyerson so beautifully conveys in The Bookshop of Yesterday, it is more than worth the effort, because when you do, and the secrets are unleashed and the burdens shared, wonderful things can happen, things that may have temporary pain and dislocation but which will eventually be to our benefit and to the renewal of everyone around us in ways that will delight and surprise us.

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