by Phaedra Patrick
We meet Arthur Pepper, a 69-year-old retired English locksmith, on the one-year anniversary of his wife Miriam’s death. He had spent the last year in semi-hibernation, taking a “time out” from Life, stunned by the unexpected end of their happy marriage of more than 40 years. Feeling that it was the end of something and not knowing what came next, he had barricaded himself behind every-day meaningless tasks: watering his fern Frederica (yes, he’d named a fern), tending his garden, performing daily housecleaning chores. On this day, however, everything changed. While he had no way of knowing on that day, it was the beginning of “what came next” in his life.
Arthur decided this was the day to sort through Miriam’s belongings to prepare them for charitable donation. In the process, he checked inside a boot because he’d heard of a lottery ticket someone had once found inside boots purchased at a flea market. He was shocked to find not a lottery ticket, but a red heart-shaped box protected by a tiny padlock! Inside the box was a heavy charm bracelet with 8 charms attached, none of which he’d ever seen before. He was shocked because it seemed impossible to him that Miriam would have hidden it from him. WHY would she do that? It was completely out of character.
Arthur studied the 8 charms: an elephant in which a real emerald was embedded; a tiger; a book; a thimble; a flower; a ring; a painter’s palette; and last, a heart that looked newer and not as strongly attached to the bracelet as the other charms. He was baffled. None of those items held any meaning for him as he knew his wife of 4 decades.
He decided to try to solve this mystery. Upon close inspection, he saw a number engraved on the elephant. Deciding it MIGHT be a phone number, he dialed it—and was shocked when a man in India who had known Miriam before their marriage answered! The man explained that young Miriam had been his “ayah” in Goa for several months when he was a boy. He had loved her very much and given her the elephant when she left.
Arthur heard the story with amazement—he never knew Miriam had been to India before they met, never knew what she’d been like then. He’d simply assumed that she’d never done anything unusual or particularly interesting in her early adult years, just as HE had not. In all their decades together, they’d never talked with each other about the years before they met.
The unexpected revelation that the elephant charm had yielded stoked Arthur’s curiosity, so he decided to explore what the other charms represented. He connected the tiger charm to Graystock Manor and Lord Graystock who was still known to keep tigers on the Manor grounds. How Arthur gained access to the grounds and his subsequent encounter with a tiger before he was rescued is one of the funniest scenes in the book. He did not come away unscathed, but was not seriously injured or eaten.
He did come away, however, with an old photo of the young Miriam and a clue for his next stop. In the photo, she gazed almost adoringly at a French author, Francois De Chauffant. Arthur felt the surprising stirrings of jealousy, especially upon learning that the book charm’s inscription “Ma Cherie” referred to a famous romantic poem by the author. Arthur noted that the feelings stirred by the possibility of a rival made him feel alive.
What Arthur learned when he found and visited the author’s residence, however, was completely different from anything he’d imagined, as were his experiences in Paris (thimble charm) and at the art school (painter’s palette charm). (Spoiler alert: the most hilarious scene in the book is how he ends up posing nude for a drawing class.) Later he actually flies in an airplane to visit the man in Goa—something so radical, the old version of Arthur couldn’t have imagined it.
The travels and experiences which the charms guide him through not only open him gradually and bring him back to life, but also take him to a DIFFERENT and fuller life. He gets to know and love the young Miriam in a way that he never would have done if she’d simply told him about her early life and experiences. Arthur sees her through the eyes of people whom she helped, who cared about her—and one person who didn’t. He grows to realize that their marriage and their love was REAL for her; that it truly was what she wanted and gave her happiness. He no longer had doubts.
Arthur’s transformation is also helped along by people around him, and later HE helps in THEIR transformations. While he had been partially estranged from his son (who lived in Australia) and daughter, his new openness helps to bring the remaining 3 family members closer again. Arthur also allows his caring neighbors into his life in ways that enrich everyone.
This lovely book is Phaedra Patrick’s 2016 debut novel. I’ve not gone into much detail about Arthur’s odyssey to discover the story behind each charm because I don’t want to cheat readers out of their own personal experiences as they read. I think each one of you deserves a chance to see how this uplifting story speaks to you. On the surface, it may sound like a sad story. Don’t be fooled—I assure you, it is not.
Readers will walk away feeling happy they got to know Arthur, cheered by the kindness coming from his heart and with which those around him responded. They may see something in their own lives they need to open to, to be more daring. I know I will re-read this book when I need a reminder of its lessons for me, and I’m sure others will do the same.
Patrick has written two more novels since this stand-alone story of Arthur Pepper. I hope the characters are as likeable and the stories as touching as The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.