Hellenga’s clunky, heavy-handed tale (after
The Truth About Death) centers on a rare bookshop in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Gabe Johnson grows up around books in the 1970s, spending his time at the shop owned by his father and grandfather after his mother abandons the family when he is 12. After Gabe learns the business, his father, Charles, encourages a romance with Olivia, a young woman who works with them. Though the two become involved, “melting into each other’s dreams” while reading Keats and Wordsworth, Olivia disappears only to resurface numerous times throughout his life. In 1989, five years after Olivia’s first departure, the bookshop’s window display of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses is hit with a Molotov cocktail and a pregnant Olivia shows up at the scene. Though the shop is spared, Hellenga squeezes the attack along with the subsequent discovery of a pipe bomb for maximum narrative portent. Unexpectedly called to the maternity ward as the “father” of Olivia’s newborn, Gabe holds the child with a sense of dread over their future and that of the shop. As the plot moves forward to include the 21st-century realities of internet competition, Gabe finds he can still depend on love and death. This romance falls short of the poetry that inspires its characters. (Mar.)
The beauty of this novel and, in fact, of all of Hellenga’s work, lies in the scrupulous attention he pays to those different shapes that life takes.
Booklist on The Confessions of Frances Godwin
Don’t start reading this book if you’ve got a dinner party coming up in the next few days, or a committee meeting or a golf game. You’ll be calling people up with fake excuses and feeling bad about yourself—at least that’s what happened to me… A masterpiece.
The Washington Post on Snakewoman of Little Egypt
Sweet and lovely. A charmingly picaresque tale.
The New York Times on Philosophy Made Simple
Let’s add Robert Hellenga to the lists of American’s most admired fiction writers... he once again has produced a novel that adds immeasurably to the pleasures of reading contemporary fiction.
Elegantly moving… Everything about the narrator and the heroine of this novel is appealing right from the first paragraph… Like her, the book is modest, resourceful, and without malice—it is high-minded and fine.
New Yorker on The Sixteen Pleasures
Conveys a sense of certainty and ultimate truth that only the finest writing can achieve. It is an extraordinary novel.
Washington Post-on The Fall of a Sparrow
A bookseller's son struggles toward both personal and professional fulfillment in this latest from Hellenga (emeritus, English, Knox Coll.,
The Confessions of Frances Godwin). Gabe Johnson, third-generation proprietor of Chas. Johnson & Son, Ltd., Antiquarian Booksellers, a Chicago institution, has inherited the bookshop after his father's passing, but the rent is unmanageable. He takes to heart his father's advice: "Live your life, don't just read about it," and relocates to a beach house in St. Anne, MI, and considers selling books online. Olivia, a former flame, visits seeking respite from a lymphoma diagnosis. Gabe won't repeat the mistake of letting her get away this time, but it's challenging to love her in the moment while confronting her eventual passing. Hellenga imbues his prose with a fervent bibliographic love. However, character arcs are subsumed by effusive descriptive bibliography and doctorate-level literary references. The assumed familiarity with the works the author mentions will overwhelm the uninitiated. VERDICT A deep dive into the antiquarian book market, this is best suited for hard-core bibliophiles and literati. —Jessica Bushore, Xenia, OH
Hellenga's episodic novel traces the fortunes of a family-owned bookshop and the lives it touches.
Chas. Johnson & Son, Ltd., a purveyor of used and collectible books, is a pillar of its Hyde Park neighborhood, near the University of Chicago. Gabriel, the third generation of the Johnson book dynasty, begins work as a teenager in the shop alongside his grandfather Chaz and father, Charles Jr. Beginning in 1970, in each chapter the action jumps ahead by days, months, or years. We learn about the rare book trade, auctions, the appraisal process, and the escalating price wars as private collectors passionate about books are outbid by billionaires seeking just another trophy. Milestones in American bookselling are checked off. Johnson's is one of the many bookstores to be bombed for stocking
The Satanic Verses. The juggernaut of big-box bookselling rolls over independent stores—and then comes Amazon—but, still, Johnson's endures. Only the increasing movement of the collectible book trade to online sales deals the death blow. Meanwhile, Gabe grows up and grows older. His mother deserted the family long before; and his first love, Olivia, deserts Gabe for Yale, where an affair with a professor leaves her pregnant. Olivia will return to give birth to daughter Saskia and, later, to manage the Hyde Park Borders store, but whenever Gabe's romantic hopes rise, she dashes them. Now in his 50s, Gabe, who has never married, sells everything and buys a house teetering on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Then Borders' bankruptcy and Olivia's own belated maturity take a hand. Partly owing to a supporting cast of colorful eccentrics, including Father Gregory, desperate to unload the library of a defunct Catholic college; Delilah, scion of a funeral home chain; and Augie, a garrulous elderly former gangster, the story ambles along amiably, never failing to instruct and, somewhat less often, entertain. Gabe never fully emerges as a character since his role is principally that of a spectator to the lives of others as well as his own.
A novel with the feel of a rambling memoir.