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

He was a shattered young man, Lydia often thought, haunted but harmless— a dust bunny blowing through the corners of the store. She liked having him around. “Joey?” The third floor was dim and peaceful. Lydia stepped into a familiar warren of tall wooden shelves and followed their angles and branches into different alcoves and sections, each holding a chair or a couch, a table or a bench: Psychology, Self-Help, Religion, Travel, History. Something squeaked.

At the end of a late-night shift at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Lydia does one final sweep through the store to make sure any lingering customers, in particular those from the scruffy hodgepodge group she has deemed her BookFrogs, make their way out before closing time. What she discovers brings forth the trauma of her childhood and what follows is an enigmatic journey through her past and the life of one troubled BookFrog, Joey Molina.

When she stepped into the Western History alcove, she could feel her eyes trying to shut out what she was seeing: Joey, hovering in the air, swinging like a pendulum. A long ratcheted strap was threaded over a ceiling beam and looped around his neck. Lydia’s body sprung with terror, but instead of running away she was suddenly running toward him, toward Joey, and hugging his lanky legs and trying to hoist him up. She heard someone’s scream curdle through the store and realized it was her own.

Lydia’s BookFrogs is a group of regular customers- intelligent, often homeless, directionless and lonely simply looking for comradery in the book stacks and fellowship in a community of bibliophiles. She took extra care to secure their well-being while they resided at Bright Ideas so when Joey is found dead, suspended from the ceiling, she questions her role in his decision and what she could have done to prevent it.

“He would’ve found a way,” Plath said, “with or without you. Suicides are persistent like that.”

It quickly becomes clear that Lydia was more to Joey than a bookseller and a friendly face. She is entrusted with the entirety of his worldly possessions and an intelligently crafted puzzle through which he shares his story.

You found me again, Lydia

It starts with a book, a cypher, left for Lydia to decode and when she does the true Joey shines through his words from beyond the grave.

“I found him once when he was hanging,” she said, “and again when I figured out his messages. I found his voice, I guess.” “His last words,” Lyle said.

His story is a troubled one full of mistakes and loss. Joey was a lonely boy searching for acceptance, for direction and for family. He found a substitute for these needs at Bright Ideas, with Lydia and the other BookFrogs, but when his search comes to a desperate end, Lydia is left to pick up the pieces.

It occurred to Lydia that he may have hanged himself because he’d spent his whole life trying in vain to find a place that, for him, was never allowed to exist.

Along the way, Lydia’s past begins to force its way through the careful wall she has built.  It is a horrific experience that runs jaggedly through the tale, adding depth to Lydia’s character and providing all the right twists and turns to set-up the final reveal.

She looked up from the sink and stared at David for a sign that her father had told, that David now knew who she really was: Little Lydia. The bloody-faced girl beneath the sink, the survivor from the evening news. Because no one from her present life knew. No one could know.

When a person from Lydia’s past reappears, she is forced to dig deeper into the truth of her memories. What she discovers in tandem with Joey’s epic riddle is both shocking and heartbreaking in equal measure. As it all unfolds, the need for answers keeps the pages turning at an increasingly rapid pace.

Peppered with thought-provoking lines about books, love and family,  Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is an intriguing thriller with character depth and literary insight that elevates it far beyond the average mystery.

His whole life he had turned to books as his only solace, so it made sense that in preparing to undo himself he would do the same: fall into their pages, disappear into their windows, expose his soul on his way out of life.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Scribner via Netgalley.

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