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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Published by Scribner on June 13, 2017

It isn’t surprising that books are central to Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. In addition to the bookstore, a library plays a role in the novel, as does a character who maintains his own library of books nobody wants, a home full of crowded shelves where books go to die. The plot features a way to communicate via books, a communication of messages that is more intimate those communicated by the books themselves.

Joey hung himself in the history section of the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Lydia finds Joey’s dangling body near midnight, at closing time. She also finds a picture of herself, taken in her childhood, poking out of Joey’s pocket. It is a picture she had never seen before, taken at her birthday party 20 years earlier.

Joey was one of the store’s BookFrogs, the anonymous men who roam the aisles or sit in the chairs, reading or staring, perhaps homeless or seeking respite from home. Joey had a criminal history but a (mostly) gentle soul. Joey was inevitably accompanied by his friend and mentor Lyle, but Lyle was not present at Joey’s death. Joey left everything he owned, consisting primarily of books, to Lydia.

A deepening mystery surrounds the books. Seemingly random holes are cut from the pages; price tag labels have been swapped with other books. With the help of her friends Raj (who still holds a childhood crush on Lydia) and David (her boyfriend), Lydia tries to make sense of the holes in the books, as well as the holes in her life.

Lydia’s backstory involves an unsolved murder, leaving the reader to wonder how it will fit into Lydia’s present. It quickly becomes evident that Lydia, like some of the BookFrogs, is concealing herself in the bookstore, using it as a place to hide from life. In that regard, she may be replicating a traumatic moment from her childhood, one that the mystery of Joey’s death forces her to reexamine. The mystery also forces Lydia to reconsider her voluntary estrangement from her father.

The plot initially struck me as being a bit contrived, but mysteries are often based on contrivances and I found it easy to suspend disbelief given the novel’s other virtues. In fact, by the novel’s end, the central events in the story were so carefully woven together that the plot didn’t seem contrived at all.

The novel is, in part, a tribute to the power of books. It’s also about making connections with people who are isolated, about caring for people nobody else cares about. Lydia is almost saintly in her kindness to the unfortunate, but her compassion is credible and it makes her a very likable character.

Sympathizing and empathizing with the characters is easy because Matthew Sullivan pushes the right emotional buttons. He does that honestly, not in an overtly manipulative way but because the story is naturally full of emotional triggers. The novel starts out telling a light and amusing story, then gradually becomes a dark and tragic story. Humor and tragedy are skillfully balanced. The is a good novel for crime story fans, but its emphasis of books makes it an easy novel for any book lover to enjoy.


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