The Wells Bequest (2013), Polly Shulman.
In an unplanned tag-team review, I’m following up on a book Calmgrove reviewed last fall, Polly Shulman’s The Grimm Legacy (the review of which you can read here). That novel introduced us to the New-York Circulating Material Repository (note the hyphen, signaling something old fashioned and perhaps a bit stuffy), a library from which members can borrow such things as seven-league boots and magic carpets, provided they’re willing to leave something like their sense of humor on deposit. Query: what would you be willing to give up for a few days, just so that you could borrow a cooking pot that’s never empty? You can be sure that whatever you give up, you’ll need before you return the pot.
Shulman’s companion novel, The Wells Bequest, moves from fairy tale to science fiction, revealing the Repository’s collection of such objects as the submarine Nautilus from Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, death rays, shrink rays, and Wells’ Time Machine. Leo is the new page, Jaya his young mentor. The plot revolves around a lop-sided love triangle, where jealousy forces the jilted lover to commit a rash act, which he rues and hopes to correct via the Time Machine.
But, of course, complications arise: is it possible to change the past without affecting the present? Any novel featuring time travel has to consider not just the “butterfly effect” or the puzzle of whether it’s possible to erase your own existence by killing your grandfather. For me, these novels also must create believable motivations for the characters to need or want to make the trip in the first place.
For instance, we first see Leo in his bedroom, startled by the sight of himself, miniaturized, riding a strange contraption with an attractive girl he doesn’t know. The small Leo orders the big Leo to “Read H. G. Wells!” and then disappears. Everything that follows arises from big Leo figuring out how he got a) small, b) on that weird contraption, and c) with that girl.
Shulman’s plot develops slowly, as we follow Leo’s progress in learning just exactly what the Repository contains. Through the tale run philosophical discussions about alternative universes, various types of time travel machines, and the delicate line between fiction and fact. A fight scene is both comic and tense, the villain’s demise satisfying, and the hero’s reward just. Although I found the villain’s escalating threats a bit over-the-top and thus hard to take seriously, the story provided enough fun as well as a few conundrums to keep me interested.
And I’m still trying to decide what I’d leave at the Repository. How about my sense of style?