Hugo Featherstone is punching above his intellectual weight in his marriage, a fact that his American wife Eleanor seldom allows him to forget. A Fulbright scholar, she is fond of quoting Tennyson and TS Eliot over muesli, even though Hugo, like Oscar Wilde, is firmly of the belief that “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”. Not that Eleanor is interested in his thoughts. She’s a terrible literary snob and Hugo suspects she only married him for his exquisite country house in Wiltshire, where Robert Graves once stopped for a “comfort break” on his way to lunch with Thomas Hardy.
When they first met at a wedding in Philadelphia 20 years ago, she was so transfixed by his resemblance to the characters from Brideshead Revisited that she failed to notice his eyes glazing over every time she mentioned Sylvia Plath. Neither did Eleanor care – back then, at least – that Hugo preferred rugby to Scrabble. She was in love with his English accent and was already planning her internship at Literary Review.
But since the twins left for university, Eleanor had begun to stay over at their London flat far more nights a week than there are book launches. She’d also taken to highlighting her hair and spraying Fracas in some surprisingly intimate places, which Hugo, not usually the most perceptive of men, feared did not bode well for his marriage.
In a bid to impress her he bought himself a Kindle and joined the local book group – but she almost choked on her disdain. So he has decided to launch a grander, more romantic bid to win his wife back.
“How big would you like your home library to be?” Tilly asks as she blinks up at Hugo, her fountain pen poised. Given that Hugo was forced to dress as Charles Dickens on his wedding day, it’s amazing he could ever find anything to do with books remotely alluring again. But then Tilly is no ordinary librarian – she’s a “private library curator”, with raven-coloured, mermaid-like hair, porcelain skin and legs that make Hugo blush every time she ventures up her library ladders. As they discuss his bibliographical needs – would he prefer to catalogue by alphabet or genre? – Hugo wonders if she’s the only woman in the world who can look ravishing in a brown
tweed skirt seemingly from Baroness Thatcher’s estate auction.
Within a week, Hugo is completely smitten. Each day that Tilly arrives on her bicycle from the train station, he greets her with a new spring in his step. It’s a shame that Eleanor, who is taking a Comparative Literature course in London, isn’t around much to notice that he’s begun to show a keen interest in the Man Booker longlist.
He and Tilly spend long hours poring over catalogues and “editing” Eleanor’s treasured collection of Gloria Steinem paperbacks. Hesitantly, under the curatress’s lustrous gaze, he begins to stock his new mahogany shelves – and a bibliophile is born. At night Hugo dreams of leather binding, marginalia and Tilly’s furrowed brow as she ponders the best place for his new 1685 Shakespeare Folio and growing raft of prized first editions.
Yet while Tilly has reawakened a love of books in Hugo – something he hasn’t felt since he read Tarzan of the Apes beneath the sheets at boarding school – on the last day of her assignment he stoically says goodbye to her and any future he may have fantasised about them having together.
Later, as Hugo surveys his new library and the scent of leather and mildew hangs in the air, he hears his wife’s footsteps in the hallway.
“Through here, darling,” he calls out. “I’ve got something to show you.”
As Eleanor runs her fingers over the spines of the many precious volumes and smiles in disbelief at her husband’s grand gesture, he plucks up the courage to ask her a question about her all-time favourite novel.
“So darling, do you think if Dr Bovary had created a library like this for Emma, she might never have had an affair and their marriage could have been saved?”
Hugo holds his breath as he waits nervously for her reply.
“God, I have no idea.” Eleanor blushes slightly. “I can’t honestly say I’ve ever finished a book in my life.”