THE BROKEN TEAGLASS by Emily Arsenault

Book Quote:

“Language…is supposed to be one of the things that separates us from grunting primates. If you turn it into something you beat your chest over, something that only serves to make you better than someone else, or make you insensitive to other human beings—then you may as well be a grunting primate.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowsky (NOV 6, 2009)

In Emily Arsenault’s The Broken Teaglass, two young employees of a dictionary publishing company become obsessed with an unsolved murder. Billy Webb, who is twenty-four, joins the ranks of editorial assistants at the Samuelson Company, and soon befriends Mona Minot, a bright, aggressive, and forthright colleague. Together, they relieve the tedium of their jobs by digging out citations written by Dolores Beekmim, author of a non-existent book called “The Broken Teaglass.” Dolores’ mysterious citations appear to be some sort of confession, but what crime did she commit and why would she place incriminating information in old card files? It takes quite a while for the persistent Billy and Mona to put all of the pieces together, but they are a determined and single-minded pair with a great deal of time on their hands.

Oddly, it is not the underlying mystery that fascinates us as much as the process by which lexicographers discover new words and amend their definitions of established words. Arsenault acquaints us with “research reading,” during which the editor spends time perusing “magazines, newspapers, or books in search of new words, new uses of old words,” and anything else of note. The editor underlines words or phrases that catch his eye, circles a few sentences that surround them, and “the circled material is eventually typed up into small individual slips,” that are called citations. Samuelson has ten million citations, the more recent ones stored on computers, and the older ones still in card files. Words that accumulate quite a few citations may eventually find their way into the next Samuelson dictionary. Unfortunately, this kind of work can be deadening and as a veteran of the company points out, “[This] place isn’t exactly a fortress of mental well-being.”

There is a great deal of wry humor in this book about a nebbish, Billy, who majored in philosophy and believes that he was lucky to find any job. Billy considers his coworkers to be intelligent but a little off-center. He soon learns that lexicographers have their crosses to bear, especially when cranky men and women call or write either to quibble about a dictionary entry or to ask such lame questions as: “What is the difference between a pimple and a boil?” As Billy and Mona uncover more about the perplexing Ms. Beekmim, the two become close friends. Eventually, Billy tells Mona a painful secret that has tormented him for years and she shares not only the story of her childhood but also her hidden yearnings. The Broken Teaglass is not a particularly exciting or suspenseful mystery, but it is an engaging, poignant, and quirky character study of brainy but isolated individuals who long for the companionship of a kindred spirit.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 8 readers
PUBLISHER: Delacorte Press; 1 edition (September 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AMAZON PAGE: The Broken Teaglass
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Emily Arsenault
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: If you like this one, try:

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

The Anthologist by Nicholas Baker


November 6, 2009 · Judi Clark · 3 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, Mystery/Suspense

3 Responses

  1. Kirstin - November 7, 2009

    Very nice, succinct review, Eleanor. I just finished this novel yesterday and then saw your review posted — a bit of synchronicity. I get the feeling I may have liked it a bit more than you. I definitely agree that one of its most interesting aspects is the detail about what lexicographers do with words, but there is also a philosophical bent to it that I relished. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Arsenault’s next work, which could be about teaching, or being a librarian, or working for the Peace Corps — all of which she did after her first job as a…lexicographer.

  2. lawrence - January 31, 2010

    I just cannot wait to read the book of an Author whom i know what inspired her to write the first novel.We are waiting for it in South Africa

  3. booklover10 - February 1, 2010

    Thanks to Kirstin and Lawrence for your comments.

    I was expecting a great deal from this novel, but for me, it worked more as a character study than as a mystery. Still, I admire anyone who adores words as much as I do. I am and always have been a “word junkie.”

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