REVIEW: The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral library. Increasingly, he feels like a fish out of water among the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where he works as an English professor. His one respite is his time spent nestled in the library, nurturing his secret obsession with the Holy Grail and researching his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.
But when a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with the task of digitizing the library’s manuscripts, Arthur’s tranquility is broken. Appalled by the threat modern technology poses to the library he loves, he sets out to thwart Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books—and a fellow Grail fanatic.
Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, the ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral’s founder. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany’s search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the cathedral, about the Grail, and about themselves.
Dear Mr. Lovett,
The start of the book is a little slow. Let me just get that out there right from the beginning. But even as I meandered through it with nary a Grail in sight, I could see that it is telling us about Arthur and his life and how settled its gotten. I hate to use the term fuddy-duddy but Arthur likes things “just so” and is happiest in his own little world of books. Arthur is a creature of habit – as am I – and doesn’t take to change very well.
Well change is coming at him like a freight train. Suddenly his world is up-ended when an American arrives to digitalize the library manuscripts. Arthur is miffed. Arthur is annoyed and Arthur doesn’t hesitate to tell this to Bethany – in his reserved British way. The manuscripts have done just fine without being “on-line” and he sees no purpose in putting them there. Arthur clearly is not part of the digital age. While not quite a Luddite, he prefers books he can see and touch and smell. Arthur’s all about the tactile and experiencing them with his senses. How can you do that with pixels? – not that Arthur really seems to know what a pixel is. I also agree with him in that I miss card catalogs too.
“Reading without books, though Arthur, was like playing cricket without dressing in white. It could be done, but why?”
Bethany’s arrival blows into Arthur’s life like a gale force wind and with her arrival, things wake up and kick into gear. It is Bethany who – in exasperation – reminds Arthur that he gets to practically live in this wonderful old library but takes that ability for granted while “to most people being in a room like this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
I was worried that in a book about the Holy Grail, things would get woo-woo and all conspiracy plotty and such. But the way the chapters are set up – beginning first with descriptions of Barchester Cathedral and then with short snippets of events which happened along the way from its foundation, through the Norman conquest, the reformation, the Civil War and Restoration, we can see the progression of the lives of the caretakers of the mystery of Saint Ewolda and of the treasure hidden first at her priory and then at the Cathedral. My question of “how can someone not know about this mystery or about the life of the Saint who founded this community?” gets answered in the upheavals of religion in England over the centuries. In the face of those, it’s amazing the link of knowledge didn’t snap earlier. As it is, there are tantalizing clues left by those who held the secret but which weren’t found until someone could put them all together.
And to do that, it takes both ancient and modern technology as Bethany smilingly tells Arthur. Kind of like – it takes a village but of bibliographers. Now we see that Arthur might not have the widest circle of friends but they are fast friends and just as willing to hurl themselves – with trowel, bread knife and candles – into solving this mystery as are Arthur and Bethany. They have a blast working out a covert ops plan which they pull off to perfection. The clues are there, gently sprinkled throughout the story just waiting for our intrepid quartet to put them all together. I never felt that anything was pulled out of a hat or invented as things went along.
As for the treasure which has been kept hidden for over a millennium though trials and tribulations? As a sixth century Abbess said upon seeing it, “This is not what I expected.” To which the monk replied, “The gifts of God rarely are.” The book is also a journey of faith, not only Arthur’s but of all those who believed in the past, the present and who will in the future. Arthur is the most Church going agnostic I’ve ever heard of but he can recognize the faith of others and honors it even as he struggles with whether or not he can ever feel the same way. I like that in this story of centuries of deep religious belief, Arthur is allowed his viewpoints and feelings.
Yet is there a romance? You betcha. I could see it coming from the moment these two cross verbal swords in the Cathedral Library. There’s a moment of misunderstanding over true intentions but thankfully this doesn’t last long. Arthur’s friends Oscar and David almost roll their eyes when Arthur stumblingly denies their attraction. Bethany goes whole hog – which is how she approaches everything – but even she’s about to bop Arthur over the head when he pulls off an unknowing impersonation of Hugh Grant in “Four Weddings” as he declares his feelings. British reserve and Stiff Upper Lip my ass, is how Bethany sees it. She’s not going to allow Arthur to efface himself away from their relationship and lets him know in no uncertain terms.
“And what is it you want me to tell you?” said Arthur. He knew that escape was hopeless, that he would have to face the crux of this conversation within a sentence or two, but his instincts still told him to play dumb and maybe it would all just go away. And then he thought, Why should he want it to go away? Why should he want her to go away? He was trembling with fear, yes, but he was trembling with excitement, too. He was alone on a parapet with the woman he loved, her face aglow, the flecks of gold in her blue eyes like . . . like . . . God, for an English lecturer he was rubbish at metaphors. But why not? Why not tell her that he loved her? This, of course, was the voice of impulsive Arthur, the Arthur driven by emotion and . . . and foolishness.
“Say how you really feel about me.”
“What do you mean . . . I mean, why would I—”
“Arthur, you may think that your British stiff upper lip keeps you from showing any emotions, but you’re actually pretty easy to read.”
“I’m not sure that I—”
“Besides, a guy doesn’t take a girl for a walk in the countryside and then to a romantic old ruin, and then to the top of a crumbling wall, unless he has something pretty important to say.” She laid a hand gently on his cheek, her fingertips barely grazing his skin, and he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t hide it any longer.
“I realize this is grossly inappropriate,” said Arthur, “and I beg you not to give it a second thought and to fly back to America and forget this entire conversation, but as you seem especially eager to know, the fact is I am . . . I am rather . . . I’m afraid I’m in love with you.”
For the first time in weeks, maybe years, Arthur felt giddy.
In the end, some mysteries are solved, some people are better understood, the day is saved, love is found and faith is explored, touched and expanded. This book is “not what I expected” but it’s what I was delighted to find. B+
I will admit that there is a bit at the end that I had my doubts about – a bit of archeology. That is, until I saw this story about an actual restored site in London. Play the video to learn more about it.