Arthur Pepper is a 69-year-old widower living a quiet, routine-filled life in York. A year after the death of his wife Miriam, he decides it’s time to sort her clothes. He discovers a gold bracelet with eight charms, a bracelet he has never seen. He decides to track down the story behind each charm; in his travels he is taken far outside his comfort zone and ends up learning about Miriam’s life before she married him, but he also learns a great deal about himself and finds new purpose.
The premise of the story is rather unbelievable. Arthur and Miriam were married for forty years, yet he knows nothing about her life before their marriage?! That a husband and wife might not know everything about each other’s lives is credible, but that he knows virtually nothing calls into question the closeness of their relationship.
Another weakness is that everything comes so easily for Arthur in his quest. While sorting Miriam’s shoes, he remembers a neighbour’s story “about a pair of boots she’d bought from a flea market and found a lottery ticket (nonwinning) inside.” Obviously, he finds something inside one of Miriam’s boots. Later, he decides to look around Miriam’s childhood home because “It might spark a memory.” And of course, “A memory began to creep back.” Naturally, he meets someone who says,” ‘I do know someone who knows about gold bracelets. He’s got a shop not far from here. We could take your bracelet to him, if you like.’” A quest usually has some challenges, but his are few.
There’s a great deal of telling, rather than showing. After the story of each charm is uncovered, Arthur learns something; every event becomes a teachable moment. What he learns is explicitly detailed as if the author fears the reader might not be able to grasp Arthur’s insights. Arthur even tells an acquaintance, “’I am learning more about myself . . . With each person I encounter, with each story I hear, I feel as if I am changing and growing.’” At times the summaries go on and on: “What he had discovered were things about himself. He hadn’t expected to act so bravely. . . . He offered relationship advice to a stranger in a café, and when he spoke he hadn’t sounded like the silly old man he told himself he was. He confronted a past love rival, when he could have walked away . . . His openness and acceptance of a young man with a drug problem and his dog had surprised him. These were qualities that he didn’t know he possessed. He was stronger and had more depth than he knew and he liked these new discoveries about himself.” For someone who was clearly not introspective, Arthur becomes very reflective.
This is obviously a debut novel. A reader can imagine the plot graph: this happens and then Arthur learns a lesson. Then this person will help him with the next charm and he will learn another lesson. And what the protagonist realizes is not exactly profound: “All was not as glossy as it first seemed” and “it’s the things you say and do that people remember you for” and “it was possible for memories to shift and change with time. To be forgotten and resumed, to be enhanced or darkened as the mind and mood commanded.”
This book will appeal to readers who like sentimental books with an uplifting message. This is certainly a feel-good book with a life-affirming message. It will be compared to other books like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and there are certainly similarities, but The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper lacks the polish of the others. It has its charms, but it is not exceptional.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.