Book Reviews

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew Sullivan

Lydia Smith lives her life hiding in plain sight. A clerk at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, she keeps a meticulously crafted existence among her beloved books, eccentric colleagues, and the BookFrogs—the lost and lonely regulars who spend every day marauding the store’s overwhelmed shelves.

But when Joey Molina, a young, beguiling BookFrog, kills himself in the bookstore, Lydia’s life comes unglued. Always Joey’s favourite bookseller, Lydia has inherited his meagre worldly possessions. Trinkets and books; the detritus of a lonely man. But when Lydia flips through his books she finds them defaced in ways both disturbing and inexplicable. They reveal the psyche of a young man on the verge of an emotional reckoning. And they seem to contain a hidden message. What did Joey know? And what does it have to do with Lydia?

As Lydia untangles the mystery of Joey’s suicide, she unearths a long-buried memory from her own violent childhood. Details from that one bloody night begin to circle back. Her distant father returns to the fold, along with an obsessive local cop, and the Hammerman, a murderer who came into Lydia’s life long ago and, as she soon discovers, never completely left. 

bright ideas bookstore cover

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore wastes no time in getting straight into the story, opening with the fluttering and thudding of falling books from the upper floors of the bookstore as Lydia serves her final customer on an otherwise average evening. As she reaches the top of the store, she finds BookFrog Joey Molina hanging from the rafters, having committed suicide in the Western History section. As she steps closer to Joey’s body, she sees sticking out of his jeans pocket a photograph of her, at her tenth birthday party. And so begins Lydia’s mission to understand Joey’s past; interpreting the clues he has left for her amongst his only worldly belongings, and uncovering secrets that take her back to a past she has long tried to forget.

The narrative of the book is split between Lydia’s present-day life, and that of her 10 year old self. Within the first two or three chapters, we learn that Lydia has been through an event of significant trauma in childhood, and that Joey’s death has reopened that door. She describes herself as ‘the bloody faced girl beneath the sink’ and we see flashbacks to a claw hammer saturated with hair and blood. When we learn about the event that has caused so much grief – the murder of a friend and her parents – it is told through the eyes of younger Lydia; and the whole section of the book is fraught with tension and terror. Sullivan uses some simple but piercing imagery within these paragraphs:

“…the sounds that followed would follow forever…. An egg dropped. Another egg dropped. Another.”

The book deals with a number of themes. The love of books and bookshops is one of the most obvious and prominent; and the way that these two things can be a salvation for those in need. Lydia recalls how, in a rare conversation with Joey; he alludes to the fact that books ‘saved his life’, making it somewhat ironic, and extremely poignant, that he chose to end his life among them too. Our relationship with family is another important element; and how a single event can change those relationships forever. Lydia’s relationship with her father is defined by her past, and the way they both changed after That Night.

Though Bright Ideas is not heavy on the humour, there were a couple of points in the book that made me laugh amongst the drama. Particularly, the description of how Joey’s only friend, Lyle, scattered his ashes after the cremation:

“I put his ashes in a duffel bag and snipped a tiny hole in the bottom and walked the length of the zoo. But I didn’t make the hole big enough so there were these tiny pieces left over in the bag. I shook them into the grass. But then all the geese thought he was bread crumbs and started charging me. Horrifying, Lydia, the way they gobbled him up. A frenzy. Joey would have abhorred all the attention.”

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a difficult book to fit into one genre, I think – it’s part-drama, part-crime, part-mystery. However you want to box it, it is original and affecting, and a moving read; its pages filled with the best and the worst of humanity.

As a side point; this is the second book by an American author I’ve read that makes reference to a bookshop that’s open well into the night (the other being Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore). Is this a standard thing in the States?! Imagine being able to wander into your local bookshop in the middle of the night…  a girl can dream, right?.

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