Kind of whacky, quite breezy, and compulsively readable.
The Book of the Most Precious Substance goes down like candy. Got a beach blanket? Need something low-cal? Here you go.
The idea is irresistible. Because who doesn’t think the next book they grab might change their life?
Novelist Lily Albrecht is our narrator. She’s a novelist. She makes ends meet with work as a rare book dealer. In Manhattan, she’s approached by a fellow book dealer. His name is Shyman. He asks for her help finding The Book of the Most Precious Substance. He knows of a buyer who will pay high six figures, maybe more. Lily soon discovers that the book is “the rarest, most sought after book in the entire bibliography of the occult.” Oh my.
Lily shares her interest in the book with Lucas Markson, one of her regular customers. Lucas is an acquaintance. Or maybe a friend. Lily isn’t sure of Lucas’ status in her life. Lucas is head of a rare books department at a big university library. Lucas is “suspiciously normal,” but he’s read all of Lily’s works—a novel, six short stories, and eight personal essays.
Shyman turns up dead. He’s left behind a “little notebook” with clues that might lead Lily and Lucas to a copy of The Book of the Most Precious Substance. “Suddenly it all seemed silly,” Lily thinks. “Like something from a movie. A lost book, a dead bookseller, Lucas and his fake smiles and hidden awkwardness, his veneer of sophistication—ridiculous, all of it.”
The book in question, it’s claimed, promises sexual rapture or something or other to those who can endure, complete, or run the gauntlet of prescribed things the book details to reach the top of the mountain where sex and power do something magical. Step one involves generating sweat but with the “right intent” and then saying a word and touching that sweat “from unfulfilled desire” on a symbol in the book and saying the word at the right time. Because when you touch the fluid to the seal on the book you give the book power and that’s how it works. And, yeah, that’s step one.
And we’re off to Los Angeles, New Orleans, Munich, and Paris with Lily and Lucas on the hunt, looking for wealthy book lovers who might have reason to want to own my precious. Lily is able to travel the world in search of this book in part because her husband, Abel, has a neurogenerative disease and does not communicate. Lily’s sense of loss about her relationship with Abel is strong. He’s never far from Lily’s thoughts. She lets us know that she was loyal to Abel as long as he was, well, able. But his incapacity makes it convenient for Lily to do what a good book dealer has got to do, including all those prescribed sexual stunts. In fact, finding the book would help Lily and Abel financially so it’s okay (we guess) that she’s getting what she wants and/or needs.
“Much of my life was a dreary grind in which I was responsible for everything, always. For someone else to take that responsibility, even for a few minutes, was pure pleasure. Lucas kissed me again. When my mouth softened against his, with no effort from me—with something more like the opposite of effort … ”
It’s all kind of page-flipping zany. Can Lucas be trusted? How far will Lily and Lucas go? Yeah, there’s a fair amount of sex; it’s all a tad clinical because we’re never quite sure if Lily is all that into Lucas. This is for the search, right? This is for the big payday, right?
There are lessons to be learned about the purpose of magic and its selfish qualities. I think. And there’s a love story here, too, amid all the chaos. Once you succumb to the giant conceit that such a book might exist, reading on is something like the opposite of effort.