The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett
The existence of the Holy Grail may be the most enduring legend in Christendom. It first entered our permanent consciousness in an unfinished romance by Chrétien de Troyes in the late 12th Century. Novels and movies have been produced, and explorers have searched to no avail for the legendary cup. Originally associated with the Arthurian legends, it has come to represent the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper.
After delightful and beautifully written novels about Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, Charlie Lovett’s fourth novel The Lost Book of the Grail breathes new life into the ancient story and brings the reader on a beautifully conceived search for the elusive cup. Lovett’s work is a more solidly literate and believable novel than other recent accounts (Dan Brown oozes immediately into mind).
Its sub-title is instructive: “Or, A Visitor’s Guide to Barchester Cathedral.” The primary setting is Barchester, late of Anthony Trollope, where Arthur Prescott teaches English Literature at the university (one of those “Plate Glass Universities” of the 1960s in Great Britain) and can never seem to finish his comprehensive guide to the history of the cathedral. Happiest in the dusty archives, his perfectly ordered life is upended when Bethany Davis arrives. A young American, her task is to digitize the manuscripts Prescott so loves. There is a rumor that her effort presages a plan to sell those precious manuscripts.
Read Lovett’s description of the library of Barchester Cathedral and you will regret that it is just a figment of his imagination, but, oh, how close that description comes to how the reader might imagine such a library to be. An epigraph from Anthony Trollope captures the world in this novel. Trollope wrote that Barset had been entirely real to him, its spires and towers, and “the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps.” This is exactly what Lovett has so elegantly created: his characters are fully realized, his plot tight and completely realistic. The astute reader will discover a number of nods to Trollope, including Hiram’s Hospital where Prescott lives, Lazarus College, The Daily Jupiter, and a number of other names. All add depth to the novel’s rich environment.
Lovett weaves the stories of Arthur and Bethany, the cathedral, St. Ewolda, and the Grail by telling a number of stories within their primary arc. At a recent talk, he noted that after he recovered from graduate school and his more literary writing, he realized that the secrets to becoming a successful writer were to “tell a story” and “write about things I care about.” Lovett illustrates the power of story in a delightful passage in which Bethany asks Arthur to read a passage from his oft-delayed guide. It is torturous and pedantic, more suited to an historic plaque on a wall. She then asks him to tell the same information in the style of P. G. Wodehouse, and it is brilliant. And, by telling the story to Bethany so she can type it, he gets the story out of his head and onto the page.
After reading this realistic (albeit fictional) account of a search for the Holy Grail, it is hard not to believe that such a relic truly exists. Arthur’s search is also a search for faith in a higher power as he pursues the origins of the cathedral and the legend of St. Ewolda. It is a moving and powerful story rich in mystery, love, and faith.