Dear Mr. Nicolls,
We get lots of arcs and finished copies of books offered to us at Dear Author. Some I am anticipating, others I recognize the author’s name and in a few cases, I’ve never heard of either book or author. Your debut novel, “The Good Mayor” falls into the latter category. I say this not to denigrate it but to point out that I had no idea what I would be getting myself into when I started it. The US cover of the book enchanted me. When Jane sent this in a box of other books, that is what made me pull it out and check the back blurb.
In a busy little city in a forgotten corner of the Baltic, in an office on the square, the beloved mayor of Dot lies on his office floor, peering beneath his door. Tibo Krovic has come to work from his house down at the end of a blue-tiled path. He’s taken, as usual, the tram seven stops, and walked the final two. He’s stopped for strong Viennese coffee. And now Tibo Krovic is looking at the perfectly beautiful feet of his voluptuous, unhappily married secretary, Mrs. Agathe Stopak. The Good Mayor is badly in love.
And over the course of days, months, and years, amid life’s daily routine-‘a fallen lunch pail, a single touch, a handwritten note and then a terrible choice-‘he and Agathe must come to terms with this thing that has seized hold of them both, exploring the tastes of desire and despair, love, friendship, and betrayal. . . . Until fate, magic, and their own actions lift them from their moorings-‘toward an utterly unexpected future.
Their tortuous road to bliss is fraught with phantom circus performers, malevolent painters, rotund lawyers, mysterious fortune-tellers-‘and every single one of love’s astonishing little cruelties and miracles.
Something about a man so helplessly in love with a woman that he seizes the opportunity to spy on her feet under a door made me think, “this guy’s really got it bad. He’s on his knees peering under a door just to see her feet? Okaaaay.” I read the second paragraph of the blurb and decided by its last sentence to read the book. Having now finished it, I’m glad that I didn’t read the last part or I might have lost faith reading about the tribulations and pitfalls along their path to a HEA. But then this is a fairy tale and all good fairly tales involve some effort before the words, “and so they lived happily ever after.”
I’m not sure if this is a contemporary or a book set in a not too distant past. There are no indications of time frame or year, and I usually go nuts if I don’t have these things, but then it’s a fantasy. You make the reader decide. Or not, if they don’t care about such things. Even the place is nebulous. I was amused by the town names: Dot, Dash, Umlaut and the River Ampersand. Obviously fantasy but not too much since these are supposed to be little towns in the Baltic area and sometimes their city names sound at once common and yet foreign to me.
About 100 pages into the novel, I stopped to think, “I’m reading about an honest man with an ordinary life who is hopelessly in love with an unhappily married woman and I’m not depressed by the story.” Truly I wasn’t. I delighted in reading the every day events on the Mayor’s daily calendar and how Agathe purchased her naughty knickers. I teared up at the heartbreaking night that followed which signaled the end of her marriage. Your descriptions put me on the trams of Dot and let me watch her citizens going about their lives and see how they felt about their Good Mayor Tibo.
And these people fascinated me. Tibo who is good, kind, honest and trustworthy. Agathe who is beautiful in a buxom sort of way. The rotund lawyer Guillaume who sees more than Tibo would like. The strega Mamma Cesare with a will of iron despite her small stature. And countless others who are so well described with only thumbnail sketches.
Your writing style is delicious and makes me think of one of my fellow reviewer’s delight in a turn of phrase. Agathe doesn’t drop her dress she lets it “whisper to the floor.” Does she walk home? No, she “crunched over the gravel along the boulevard.” Mamma Cesare isn’t a little, gray haired woman, she’s “a pocket battleship of a woman.” When you describe a nasty piece of work who beats his wife as “a man who walked with his shoulders,” I could see his cocky, swaggering attitude.
But man, during the last 50 pages of the story, the fairy tale aspects kick into overdrive. Agathe literally changes but it’s a voluntary change, one she seems happy with, one that frees her. As she muses, there’s no job, nothing she has to do but lay in the sun, enjoy the smells on the breeze and love Tibo. But Tibo changes as well. There were times when you wrote things like, “Tibo had never…,” or “the citizens of Dot would be surprised to see their mayor….” that lead me to think that perhaps Tibo had always wanted to do these things but felt constrained by his past and his position. Now he’s not hemmed in as “the Good Mayor” anymore. He can write a book about a strange topic, or, as he and Agathe dreamed, read Homer to his wife while he feeds her olives.
However, after finishing, I still wondered what happened to Hektor. And worried about Achilles. I can only imagine that like most fairy tale villains, Hektor’s past caught up with him as the ill wind blew through the town.
In reviews I keep seeing the same words used to describe this book: whimsical, magical, charming, fairytale-ish but for adults. The characters must come through their dark forest and confront their evil, which they sometimes bring upon themselves, in order to live happily ever after. There is a witch but she’s a good witch, there is a saint, who narrates the story and of whom we’re only occasionally reminded, there are mysterious people in the form of a lawyer who remains much in the shadows and a restaurant with scrumptious food and coffee run by a silent man who commands by the mere flick of an eyebrow. There is a cat and a dog, a rowboat and the sea. And the whole wraps you in its embrace until it settles lightly into a finish.
What is good and what is right? Are they the same? And what does Tibo do? The reader is left to be the judge of that.
I have to be honest and admit that I’m still not sure exactly what everything means and why you used some of the devices and characters in the story that you did but! this is a book I will think of, think on and probably go back to peruse to seek to understand more at a later time. B
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