DNF: The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew PearlI should have liked The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl, a historical novel about the illicit book trade between the United States and Europe. But I just couldn’t do it and it all comes down to one reason: style. There is a certain style with which some historical novels are written, and i just don’t like it. Here are some of the elements:

  • 1st Person Narrative. At the best of times I don’t really like first person narration. I don’t know why – it’s just a personal thing.
  • The Narrator. A certain ilk of historical novel has an wizened and pompous older narrator, expounding his amazing experiences to a younger admirer. What the narrator has witnessed or experienced is remarkable, maybe even verging on magical and mystical. The narrator is almost always male (is this where mansplaining originated?) and unreliable. To me that is his one redeeming factor, I love an unreliable narrator.
  • Digressions. Lengthy Digressions. I feel like yelling, just get on with the story! But, of course, the digressions are the real story. If i were a better student of English Literature, I could tell you this is a hallmark of the Dickensian style and that the author has chosen to write in this way for very specific reasons that are all very well thought out and quite clever, but I am just a reader and a moody one at that.

I’ve pointed these things out for one rather good reason, and that is to say that although The Last Bookaneer didn’t work for me, it will work for some of you. Matthew Pearl is an acclaimed and best selling author, which is the reason why i decided to give him a try.

Who would like this book? Fans of historical fiction and book lovers. Pearl exploits an interesting period in international copyright law (who’d a thought, right?) to create an adventure story involving the sale of black market books. The quest for Robert Louis Stevenson’s last great work is at the heart of the story. For that reason, Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (review) might be a nice companion piece to The Last Bookaneer.

I know there are people out there who will love this book. Are you one of them?

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration via NetGalley.


  1. I might. Although I’m with you on the first person narrative, especially in this genre. The subject matter intrigues me though – I remember taking a comms class about this in university and being really surprised that this was a thing. Maybe a library book?

  2. I am SO excited to see your review! I have read about 20% of this book and I have just found it so boring and I think you hit on the exact reason. The writing style is just not working for me. I have been debating whether or not to fight through it more or just give up and mark it DNF. I am so glad I am not the only one!

  3. I’ve read one of Matthew Pearl’s other books – The Last Dickens – and didn’t enjoy it. I remember having some of the same problems you’ve mentioned here (long digressions and too much detail slowing the story down). This book does sound interesting, but I don’t think I want to read it.

  4. I think I tried a Matthew Pearl book as well but couldnt get into it. I think it was The Last Dickens. I didnt get very far before looking for something else. I so wanted it to be good too. I may try again someday.

  5. Haha – I actually am a huge fan of first person narration! For some reason it helps me feel more engaged. I’m not much of a historical fiction kind a gal though, so I’m unsure if I will end up giving it a try. I loved reading about your experience with it though! I think we’ve all yelled at a book or two in our lives 😛

  6. I have his Dante book on my shelf, and it looks intriguing, and the subject matter of this Bookaneer book seems really up my alley, but as I tend to shy away from historical fiction and I tend to love dialogue-heavy/description-light books, this one might not be my pick.
    Like Karen, I actually like first person narration, but I think it is better suited towards certain genres and subgenres like YA and lighter slice-of-life novels. When it’s used in historical fiction, I can find it less than genuine or authentic or whatever you wanna call it. -Tania

  7. Oh yes! The narrator and the digressions both made me want to scream sometimes. I should have DNF’d this one too, because I felt the same way at the end that you felt without having to waste time reading the whole thing!

  8. No, I’m not and I didn’t but I did not go so far as to DNF it. I adapted to the the things you didn’t like but ultimately the ending was such a clunker that it wasn’t worth it. You are smarter than I am.

    A side note- I felt exactly about The Fifth Heart exactly as yo unfelt about Bookaneer. It was a little bit about books but the digressions went on for 100 PAGES and that one I DNFed. Making me sad that I can’t trust this genre anymore. 😉

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