One of BuzzFeed's 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015
"As Simon, a lonely research librarian, searches frantically for the key to a curse that might be killing the women in his family, he learns strange and fascinating secrets about their past. A tale full of magic and family mystery, The Book of Speculation will keep you up all night reading."—Isaac Fitzgerald, BuzzFeed
Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.
One June day, an old book arrives on Simon's doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of "mermaids" in Simon's family have drowned--always on July 24, which is only weeks away.
As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon's family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?
In the tradition of Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, The Book of Speculation--with two-color illustrations by the author--is Erika Swyler's moving debut novel about the power of books, family, and magic.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
When librarian Simon Watson receives an antiquated carnival master’s log in the mail, he resolves to uncover the truth behind his tragic family history. For generations, his female ancestors, including his mother, Paulina, have worked as fortune tellers and human mermaids in traveling fairs—and drowned at an appallingly young age. We were completely mesmerized by the intertwining stories that make up The Book of Speculation. Author Erika Swyler—a self-professed carnival fan who grew up near the water on Long Island—works magic with her descriptions of horseshoe crabs, an electric man, love affairs, betrayals, and the intense bond between an orphaned brother and sister.
In Swyler's whimsically dark debut, a damaged journal kept by the owner of a traveling freak show in the 18th century finds its way to Simon Watson, a Long Island librarian in the present with a family history that seems to be tied up in the mysterious tome. Simon's mother, Paulina, a former carnival mermaid, intentionally drowned herself, leaving Simon to care for his sister, Enola, after their father eventually died from heartache. At the book's outset, Enola, who also joined a traveling show, returns to the decaying family home where Simon still lives, fraught with worry over a series of bad tarot readings. As Enola's behavior continues to concern him, Simon finds out from the book that women in his family all drown on July 24. As this date draws closer, Swyler alternates chapters of Simon's narrative with the story that unfolds from the show's log: it details how "Wild Boy" and tarot apprentice Amos came to be cared for like a son by proprietor Hermelius Peabody and fortune teller Madame Ryzhkova. The trouble begins once Amos falls for the mermaid Evangeline, who reminds Madame Ryzhkova too much of the woman she blames for the death of her father. The carnival chapters aren't as engaging or convincing as they could be, particularly at key moments, although for the most part Swyler does a commendable job of juggling the various loose ends, and eventually weaving them together. A good deal of time is spent in Simon's head, but Enola isn't fleshed out enough. The author does get kudos for fabricating a fully formed mythos chock full of curses, omens, and coincidences, all of which help make up for the story's weak points.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Mesmerizing. Ingenious. Beautiful.
It was a good read. It kept you wanting to read more to find out what happens next.
Lovely and charming debut!
The Book of Speculation captured me from the very first sentence with beautiful language and a uniquely crafted family tale. I wanted to stay in both Simon and Amos’ worlds a bit longer, if only to experience Swyler’s uncanny ability to enchant me with her words, much like Evangeline enchanted those with her presence.
Everything had a touch of whimsy and danger with each turning page, and after page 60 or so, I finished this book in one sitting. The building upon the family mystery was done so masterfully that I spent my entire Sunday afternoon gripped to the book until I knew Simon and his family’s fate.
At moments, I found the flashbacks to Amos to be more gripping, just because of the beautiful and terrifying backdrop of the carnival. Though, as I reached the end when Simon discovered at an alarming rate that his sister might be the next to share the same fate as his ancestors, I enjoyed looking through his eyes again.
As a big fan of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, I found the comparison natural. I would encourage those who have not read The Book of Speculation to greet it with an open mind and heart, and let the story of carnival mermaids and family secrets whisk you away for a calm Sunday afternoon.
“Once you’ve held a book and really loved it, you forever remember the feel of it.”