The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran
My rating: 4/5 cats
i was apprehensive about this book at first because although i love books about books, particularly when there’s a quest angle to ’em (à la Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, The Shadow of the Wind, Crossings, etc.), i’m much less interested in zee érotique.
don’t get me wrong, i’ll giggle over monsterotica till the cows cum home, but my track record with literary erotica has been very disappointing, since it always seems to involve characters for whom the fact that they have sex is, like, their defining characteristic, and that’s boring as heck.
but—phew—although this is about the adventures of a pair of rare book dealers searching for one of the few remaining copies of The Book of the Most Precious Substance; a 17th-century occult sex magick manual that promises its devotees ultimate power and orgasmic bliss, booknerds are—at the end of the day—still booknerds:
Like most book people, there was a shadow in his face, a hollow echo in his laugh, that let you know he’d rather be around books than people. Who could blame him? It was why so many of us were in this business. People had let us down. People had broken our hearts. We liked books and animals and messy rooms full of things that weren’t people.
these particular booknerds have loads of sex, but they are refreshingly more than the sum of their private parts.
gran’s writing is sharp, funny, relatable, and keenly observant, particularly in the prominent themes of loneliness and failure:
My father was a man with huge, unrealistic dreams and absolutely no acumen for everyday life. What he had in abundance was alcoholism, grandiosity, and maybe manic depression. My mother had studied English at Boston University before she looked for someone to ruin her life and found my father. My parents were both terrified of trying to improve our lives, long sapped of the strength for any more risk. But they approached failure with cheerful bravery, making every move and step down seem like a new adventure for as long as they could.
lily albrecht, daughter of this ambition-averse couple, seemed poised for success and happiness; writing an acclaimed novel at a young age and marrying her absolute soulmate before circumstances reduced her to the struggle of supporting herself by dealing rare books and the lonely burden of being a caretaker to a husk of a man who can give her neither physical, emotional, nor intellectual stimulation. abandoned by the literary fair-weather friends who once made up her social circle, she’s become a creatively-drained incel, as trapped in a state of existing-without-living as her lump-of-meat hubby.
so, when she’s offered the opportunity track down a copy of a mysterious black-magic-book alongside a sophisticated, charismatic gentleman companion; an endeavor promising a huge financial reward, a much-needed change-of-scenery, and the possibility of romantic shenanigans, she jumps at the chance. and if the magic this book contains has indeed been responsible for the wealth and success of countless people over the centuries, perhaps she can use it to turn her own life around.
it’s a globe-trotting sexual awakening journey involving clandestine meetings with multiple people who have designated sex-rooms in their homes and books stiffly coated with layers of a few centuries’ worth of human sexual fluids.
NB: if you find yourself in the private home of someone with a designated sex-room, you do not want to luminol their libraries.
since others here have already disclosed the Soylent Green reveal of the book’s title, i’m gonna risk the torches of the Spoiler Brigade and share this GIF—the first i have ever been inspired to create:
although i recoiled at every scene involving smearing sex juices on books (of which there are many), i really enjoyed this one, and for a novel so saturated with magical elements, the monkey’s-paw realism of its ending was melancholy perfection.
PLUS, there’s a perfect NYFC-shoutout when lily mentions eating at an indian restaurant in the east village that is …cheerful, with bright decorations hanging from every possible surface: tinsel, Christmas lights, fake flowers, and is one of my own personal favorite establishments:
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