The Book of Speculation: an etheral read

Blurb: A sweeping and captivating debut novel about a young librarian who is sent a mysterious old book, inscribed with his grandmother’s name. What is the book’s connection to his family?

Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone on the Long Island Sound in his family home, a house perched on the edge of a cliff that is slowly crumbling into the sea. His parents are long dead, his mother having drowned in the water his house overlooks.

One day, Simon receives a mysterious book from an antiquarian bookseller; it has been sent to him because it is inscribed with the name Verona Bonn, Simon’s grandmother. Simon must unlock the mysteries of the book, and decode his family history, before fate deals its next deadly hand. 

The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler’s gorgeous and moving debut, a wondrous novel about the power of books, family, and magic.

Stars: 3.5/5

The cover should have been a hint about this book — something ethereal and otherworldly. But, it was the cover that attracted me to The Book of Speculation and the something magical it promised.

After reading it though, I think you have to be in the right mood for a story as ethereal as The Book of Speculation. The book is divided into two tales – the past and present – and tells the story of a curse that plagues the Watson family and how it came to be.

The parts in the present – featuring Simon and his quest to figure just what is going on with his family – are tense, with short, sharp sentences that add to the sense of urgency around his search, as does the countdown that each chapter in the present starts with.

The present also focuses on his relationships with his sister, Enola and Alice, a friend-turned-girlfriend, as well as the complicated relationship with her father, who has been a long-time friend to his family. But I found it hard to connect to these characters. The author did explain their history and their emotional distance from each other, but I wanted more from them – I wanted to be as frantic as Simon was searching for answers, or frustrated with Enola. His past, his parents and their relationship with Enola and himself have consumed him, tied him down to a crumbling house and a place he should have left ages ago. He’s stuck in the past and he can’t let go and he isn’t a character that I could feel sympathy for no matter how much I wanted to.

Enola is much the same — a brat, for want of a better word, but with her heart in the right place. She’s aware of what her presence has cost Simon, but she can’t force him to move forward if he doesn’t want to. Alice in turn is sort of just there. A bridge between Simon and her father, in essence. I would hazard a guess and say that she’s supposed to ground him, but the connection between them is sort of just there, drowning in his search of his family’s past.

So much is tied up in the house in which they grew up, and which Simon cannot save as it crumbles under the onslaught of the weather and nature — these wild things that cannot be controlled, much like a curse. It’s indicative of his desperate desire to save Enola, and as it crumbles you’re left wondering if he can. There is more to the story, of course, and as Simon realises the extent to which his life is tied up in that house, I found myself wishing for its demise sooner than later.

Ironically, Simon, as the books ends and he’s free of his past, held more promise for me than the one in the book. I found the chapters present needed to tell me more about why Simon and Enola turned out the way they did. What snippets I got of the past were powerful and filled in gaps, but were not entirely enough to hold my attention.

It was the chapters set in the past, and Amos and Evangeline that grabbed all my attention.

Their story at the beginning of this “curse” is one that is filled with love, heartbreak and a complicated cast of colourful, carnival characters. There was a bit of “huh” moment in the beginning when I wanted to know more about Amos, especially, instead of reading about Simon. Amos is marvellously complex, even if he is mute. Swyler has made him into a riveting character, one whose every action demands your attention because that’s how Amos speaks.

I found myself wishing could have his happy ending, even though I knew he could not. He and his relationships with those around him hold those chapters set in the past together, and gave me at least a richer experience than Simon’s predicament. Emotion drips off those parts, which when compared to the chapters in the present just makes them look… stark.

After finishing, I wondered if I would respond better to Simon had his story not had to compete with Amos’ in alternate chapters. Or perhaps, these should have been two books with their stories given the utmost attention in both. I can’t decide.

What I do know is that this is a story for a reader who wants to get lost in something, leave reality behind and revel in what’s not said as much as what is said within the pages of this book.

Have you read this one? What did you think?


  • Julie S says:

    That book does have a lovely cover, and I would pick it up for that too. I’m not a fan of two stories fighting for your attention like that, it pulls me away from each person’s story and makes it a little to enjoy. Great review!

    • Verushka says:

      Julie, you’re right — the two parts did fight for my attention in the way, with the parts in the past winning. I really REALLY would have preferred more separate parts in the book or two books entirely drawing out this family saga because at its core, I love the idea behind the book. (ETA: edited for silly spelling)

  • Elizabeth says:

    I preferred the back story also, found Simon’s indecisiveness and inability to move on so annoying. Mine had a much different cover. It showed a girl holding a big stack of books.

    • Verushka says:

      I agree, those are aspects of Simon that made it hard to relate to him I think. Part of me thinks he was almost using the curse to escape his real life problems like losing his job and the house, but that doesn’t stack up because while researching the curse he was looking for a job and trying to move on in a way. I really did wish I knew more about him.

      I think the US and AU got different covers. I’m not sure which I prefer more.

  • I’ve been hearing a lot about this book, so I appreciated your review. Sounds like it is quite unique.

    I found you through the Daily Mayo link-up!


    Read My Latest Essay at Mamalode!

    • Verushka says:

      Sue, you’re right it is very unique — it had its good and not-so-good points, but there was much to enjoy in it.

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