The woman in the library handed me The Woman in the Library.

This is the second time in less than a month that I’ve had to use typography to disambiguate the title of a post. This is the better of the two examples, both because it contains the very same phrase twice and because it relates closely to the structure of the exciting novel under review here.

So, with that in mind, let me disambiguate. The context is that about six weeks ago I had ordered a copy of The Woman in the Library, by Sulari Gentill, to be delivered to the Cambridge Public Library through the Minuteman Library Network. A few days later, the Minuteman website claimed that the book was “in transit” from whichever unnamed library was sending it. And then, day after day after day, it was always “in transit.” After almost four weeks of no progress I approached a helpful librarian at the main Cambridge Public Library and expressed my skepticism about such a long “transit” from one suburban Boston library to another. How long could it take?

“I know exactly where we have a copy,” the helpful librarian replied. Then she led me to it and checked it out for me.

There’s probably a moral there somewhere.

In any case, I eagerly started reading the novel: a book about books, a book about libraries (local, no less, as most of it takes place at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square), what could be better?

My eagerness was rewarded. I couldn’t put down, as they say. While not quite literally true, it certainly expresses the feeling I had as I was reading it.

By this point you’re probably wondering about the remark in my initial paragraph about the structure of the novel. As you may have already guessed, it’s a story within a story. But wait, there’s more! It’s actually a story within a story within a story. Yes, that could be confusing, but it only makes the book more delicious as long as you’re paying attention. From some of the reader reviews on Amazon it’s clear that many readers were confused about which story they were reading when; Gentill does make it clear through conventions of typography and layout, not to mention character names, so those readers were just not attentive enough. Here’s what we have:

  1. Story #1, the epistolary outer wrapper, takes place right now, in the real world, in Boston and Australia. Gentill tells this story in the form of emails. You will be surprised by the ending.
  2. Story #2, the bulk of the novel, is the one being written right now. That’s the one about “the woman in the library,” i.e. a woman killed in the Boston Public Library, whose death is investigated by four young adults who apparently are thrown together by happenstance of time and place because…well, I will go no further or else I will accidentally commit spoilers. Suffice it to say that you will be surprised by the ending. Three of the four accidental friends are writers, leading us to…
  3. Story #3 is the novel being written by one of the characters. This one you only see indirectly, through the eyes of characters in the first two stories. You will not be surprised by the ending, because you don’t get to read it.

According to Eva Jurczyk, “The Woman in the Library is a thrill. The library setting, the conceit of four strangers at a table, and the twisty story-within-a-story make Gentill’s novel unputdownable. The book is a treat for readers who love books about books and who like their mysteries to keep them guessing until the very last page.” I couldn’t have said it better. Go read it!

Categories: Books, Dorchester/Boston