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.
I quite enjoyed this book, and it was easily one of the best debuts I've read so far this year. The story was captivating, and the writing flowed easily. The book is split between the present, where we follow Simon and his research into the family history, and the past, where we get to see the origin of the family itself. For most of the book, I actually enjoyed the parts set in the past more than the present. As much as I was interested in seeing Simon unravel the secrets of his family to understand the curse that threatens his sister's life, I have to admit that most of the time I was just bored as he did enormous amounts of research to discover stuff I had mostly figured out already. I found his story to really pick up and become interesting around the 80% mark, which was way too late for me. On the other hand, I was really invested in the "past sections" and I would actually have loved to have a deeper insight into the daily lives of the colourful cast of characters that formed the travelling show.
Speaking of characters, I was slightly disappointed by them. I felt that the whole cast just had so much potential, as each of them was carrying the weight of their past, and battling their own personal demons. There was such a wide range of characters and a variety of backgrounds, it being mostly set in a circus environment, that I felt it was really a shame that we didn't get to see more of them and to explore their personalities in more depth. This book was definitely plot driven, and it just felt to me as if a character was only recognised as far as he/she was instrumental to the plot. We only ever saw the parts of their personalities, their abilities or even the characters themselves when they were necessary to advance the plot, and practically never for the sake of getting to know the character personally. And that's perfectly fine, if you like books that focus more on the plot. If, however, like me you're obsessed with characters and getting to know as much as possible about them in the 300-or-so pages you've been gifted, you're likely to be left disappointed by this.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read, if at times a little too slow, particularly in the middle section. The author put in place a compelling story, narrated with great ability. She also managed to weave in magical elements seamlessly, and actually for a moment had me believing in mermaids and curses as if they were as common as cats and pizza. I'll definitely be on the lookout for her future work!