Up front, I shall say that I forgive Erika Swyler for making the main character of The Book of Speculation a man. I want to get this out in the open, because I really like this book. I even like Simon Watson (the main character). I just think he would have been better off as a lady. Not everything can be perfect, but The Book of Speculation nearly is, in my opinion, so I wanted you to know what I consider to be it’s primary flaw at the outset so you don’t think I’m gushing too much.
Simon Watson is a librarian with a lot of problems. His historic Long Island home is about to fall into the ocean, his job is in danger, his parents are dead and his younger sister Enola isn’t speaking to him as much as he’d like.
Simon has spent his entire life trying to be responsible for himself and Enola, and barely being able to keep things together. At the start of the novel, it’s clear that things aren’t going perfectly for Simon. The house his parents loved is falling apart, so much so that it will likely fall over a cliff into the ocean pretty much any time. Budget cuts at the library threaten his job. He seems to be falling for a lifelong friend, which will complicate his relationship with her family. It’s all a bit messy, really. The way life is, you know?
I think that’s one of the things that struck me most about the book. Aside from the fantastical and magical (of which there is plenty), Simon’s adult life is agonizingly real. He seems to be about my age (somewhere in his late 20s/early thirties) and he’s finding that being a legitimate adult is a series of painful, complicated choices. Joy is mixed with frustration and responsibility and unexpected mysteries.
When Simon receives a beautiful antique book from an unknown bookseller, he’s hurtled into his family’s past and the magic of the book unfolds. You see, the women in Simon’s family are amazing swimmers, divers, breath-holders. For generations they have been circus performers at one time or another. But until Simon gets the book, he doesn’t know much about this at all. The man who sends him the book does so because it is inscribed with his grandmother’s name and he felt Simon should have it. Having the book leads Simon to research his family and he finds a startling pattern regarding the deaths in his family.
On the surface, Simon’s book is a journal recounting the day to day operation of a traveling circus in early America. Its author was the owner of the circus and so it contains some fairly uninteresting details, but also a detailed account of two particularly fascinating additions to the circus, a mute young man and a young woman who’s talent was not drowning.
Swyler presents us with two stories, one of Simon and his desperate search to unlock the mysteries of the book and his family, and the story of the circus. The narrative switches back and forth between the two stories very effectively, releasing bits of knowledge from the past that inform Simon’s growing predicament as the book wears on. The more Simon learns about the women in his family, the more terrified he becomes for his estranged sister, Enola. There’s a bit of a race against time at the end of the book and the conclusion is extremely satisfying.
I love how the particular mundanity of life is absolutely infused with a mysterious magic in this book. I love that The Book of Speculation celebrates strangeness. Sure, there’s Enola’s boyfriend who’s covered in tattoos and can ignite lightbulbs with his touch, but there’s also Simon himself, who seems about as a boring as a fellow can be, except for the fact that he can hold his breath underwater for nearly ten minutes… Maybe more. And yet, none of this is too odd for the book. None of it is condemned in any way. In fact, it would seem that the book reassures its reader that the strange and uncanny are valuable and worth treasuring, even when they lead to heartache.
The novel reminds me quite a bit of The Night Circus, even aside from the obvious similarity. The Book of Speculation works with a magical system that is presented without much explanation and in some ways this feels like magical realism, but in others it’s a bit more fantastic. Folks who enjoyed The Night Circus will like this book, as well as people who enjoyed Water for Elephants, as this story also has a strong historical component. In fact, I would go so far as to say that people who enjoy dark (but not necessarily sinister) stories of the strange magic of the circus will enjoy The Book of Speculation.
Overall, I have to say this is probably one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. It is most definitely my favorite standalone novel so far. I do love a series, but it is wonderful to put a book down knowing you’ve read the end. I hope you’ll pick this one up.
Allison Carr Waechter would love to sink under the waves and nap at the bottom of the sea. Call her a selkie and watch her swim away.