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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Lost Glass Plates of Wilfred Eng by Thomas Orton

The Lost Glass Plates of Wilfred Eng by Thomas Orton. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. ISBN: 1582430233

This is the first novel by Thomas Orton, a bookstore manager living in Seattle. It's a darn good first effort, that's for sure. The aspect of the book that most interested me had to do with the discovery of some old photographic glass plates made by a fictionally famous Chinese-American photographer from the early 20th century.

The slightly shady art dealer who discovers them becomes embroiled in an ethical dilemma: he wants desperately to restore his fortune by selling the plates for a large amount of money, but unfortunately, the plates don't belong to him. The person who has the plates doesn't know their worth, and as it turns out, may not be the legitimate owner either. Our protagonist connives with an old colleague and erstwhile competitor to wrangle a deal with a wealthy collector, and tries to figure out some morally palatable method of getting control over the plates.

Less successful from my point of view is the art dealer's romantic relationship with the divorced mother of an eight-year old boy. This part of the book reads too much like a traditional sitcom at times, getting its kicks putting people into embarrassing and sometimes cloying situations. But it's all part and parcel of the psychological wringer the main character puts himself through, as he wrestles with his conscience, agonizes over his various possible futures, and tries to decide what he really wants and how to get it.

We also get excerpts from the diary of Eng's lover, the subject of the plates, together with proof of a relationship only hinted at, and never definitively established in the official version of the photographer's life. Uncovering this relationship becomes part of the dealer's research into the history of the previously unknown glass plates.

Overall, the book has at least two things to recommend it: great Seattle area settings and wonderful vintage art intrigue, making it more than worth the time spent. I'd give it about three and a half stars out of five, and semi-enthusiastically recommend it for anyone who enjoys this sort of thing.

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