Defining moments

Reading first novels isn’t just rewarding; it’s practical.  Unless the author inspires a media frenzy on his/her debut, you’re certain to snag a copy of that as yet undiscovered gem.  And consider the joy of recommending someone whom your friends haven’t read yet.  As with dispensing choice gossip, you’re enlightening an eager audience–only this time, it’s a good thing!

I’d been watching for Emily Arsenault’s The Broken Teaglass since pre-publication reviews appeared, especially after hearing it likened to the “clues from the archives” scenario of A.S. Byatt’s Possession.  What surprised me was that as I read on, Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End more frequently invited comparison.

Here’s the premise of Teaglass:  amiable twenty-something fresh from college accepts position as editor (one of many) at the Samuelson Company, “the oldest and most revered name in American dictionaries”.  Protagonist/narrator Billy elicits your sympathy early on, though you’ll sense a story he’s not divulging yet.  Working alongside a female colleague (she’s another plot thread all by herself) he discovers that Samuelson’s vast citation files harbor clues to a disturbing and potentially criminal episode.

The story offers an intriguing mystery and charmingly interwoven romantic tension.  However, for me the highlight was Samuelson’s workplace culture, portrayed as both typical (some “types”, generational quirks) and unique (not everyone can handle lexicography as a career).  As Ferris does in his tale, Arsenault lends immediacy and humor to an unconventional workplace and those who labor in it.

The pace of the story is nearly halted at times by the odd, noir-ish notes excavated from the word files.  At times they suggest Edward Gorey’s amusingly unconnected narratives or science fiction bits from Margaret Atwood’s wonderful The Blind Assassin.  Characterizing The Broken Teaglass as Then We Came to the End meets Possession meets Edward Gorey meets The Blind Assassin would be fun–but not fair.  You’d want to try Arsenault’s first novel on its own account.

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