|Jasper Fforde never does the expected, so it’s not surprising that he has waited until his third book to experience his sophomore slump. Like the first two books starring intrepid literary detective Thursday Next, The Well of Lost Plots is hilariously creative, a treat for fans of Monty Python and Douglas Adams. But while Fforde is busy cramming in clever jokes, puns and sight gags, his plot for much of the novel is – well, lost.
When we last saw Thursday Next, at the end of Lost in a Good Book, she had decided to hide out inside the pages of an unpublished manuscript, deep within the Book World’s Well of Lost Plots. After a high profile career as a Special Operations literary detective, assigned to protect England’s most treasured books, Thursday had made many enemies. One major nemesis, the nefarious Goliath Corporation, even eradicated Thursday’s husband Landon so that he never existed, except in Thursday’s mind – and in her body, where she is carrying his child. Thursday thinks that participating in the Character Exchange program will be a peaceful interlude until she gives birth and can renew her quest to rescue Landon from non-existence. With only her beloved regenerated dodo Pickwick for company, she hopes her worst problem will be boredom.
Unfortunately, monotony is not on the menu. Thursday has been apprenticed to Miss Havisham (of Great Expectations fame) as a Jurisfiction detective, charged with keeping order inside the Book World. Before long she finds herself in situations that range from simply bizarre to downright life-threatening, as the 923rd Annual Book World Awards approach and Text Grand Central prepares to roll out Ultra Word™, the new operating system that will revolutionize the way people read books. And even though Thursday has sought sanctuary within an obscure unpublished book, her enemies have not forgotten her. One particularly evil opponent is determined to erase the only thing Thursday has left of Landon – her memories.
By now it is a given that any book written by Jasper Fforde is going to be very funny, and as usual I annoyed my family members by chuckling out loud and reading them excerpts from the story, even though they lose much of their impact when taken out of context. Fforde’s alternate England, where the Crimean War doesn’t end until 1985 and reverse extinction kits can produce dodos, is full of satirical possibilities, but setting The Well of Lost Plots almost entirely within the fictional Book World provides his fertile mind with even more material. Within the Great Library, faceless generic characters go to St. Tabularasa’s Generic College to learn how to be heroes or villains, enterprising merchants sell backstories and plot devices, mispeling vyruses can cause mortal wounds, and even the nursery rhyme characters are unionized. Fforde gets in plenty of sly digs at targets both literary (genre fiction and American spelling) and non-literary (Microsoft’s arrogance), and in the midst of the lunacy he reveals some thought-provoking ideas about the relationship between authors, characters and readers.
But the plot barely moves forward for much of the novel; it meanders here and there, but there’s no compelling reason to keep reading except to reach the next chuckle With the exception of Thursday, the characters are great joke fodder but hardly multi-dimensional. Thursday goes from one surreal adventure to the next (it’s no accident that several Lewis Carroll characters appear in the novel; Book World is as bizarre as the other side of the looking glass) but nothing drives the plot until murder and corporate greed make a sudden appearance in the last hundred pages. Reading about an entirely fictional Book World, where rules can be made and broken at will, isn’t as entertaining as reading about Fforde’s bizarre but still recognizable England. I missed Thursday’s Spec Ops co-workers and her family members, especially her time-traveling father. I was even disappointed by Pickwick, whose appearances are sadly limited.
The Well of Lost Plots will make absolutely no sense if you aren’t familiar with Thursday’s previous adventures in The Eyre Affair and (frankly, it doesn’t make that much sense even if you have read the first two installments). While Fforde’s third novel is his weakest to date, it’s by no means destined to be demolished and tossed into the Text Sea.