A Repetitive & Unfulfilling Fetch Quest
As a 33 year old male, I appreciate that The Book of the Most Precious Substance probably wasn’t made for me. However, after reading the whole thing, it’s tough to know exactly how many people this is actually for. I am aware that this has good reviews all over the place, and given the subject matter, it’s perhaps hardly surprising.
On the surface, The Book of the Most Precious Substance has a lovely fantasy element, a deep undercurrent of erotica and danger, alongside a pacey story that immediately sucks you into the characters’ world. The mission is simple enough and there’s some nice little twists along the way.
Unfortunately, when you take a peek under the surface layer, some of the more fundamental problems with this book rears its ugly head. This is essentially a 300+ page fetch quest. Sure, there are some nice descriptions of cities and plenty of pages describing food, but the story just isn’t all that interesting. But do the characters save this one? Well… maybe. That’s certainly subjective to say the least.
The protagonist here is Lily Albrecht, a former novelist who has resigned herself to an uninspiring life as book dealer. With her husband at home suffering from a crippling disease, Lily becomes obsessed with a rare and powerful occult book – the most powerful ever written – and jets off with old friend, the handsome Lucas in search of this book.
From here, the story takes on that aforementioned repetitive style, with the majority of the book headed up with Lily: Heading to a hotel room, fooling around and cheating on her husband, eating food and meeting someone…who gives a clue to another place. Rinse and repeat. The story attempts to spice things up with sex scenes and erotica but honestly, it’s more uncomfortable and cringe-worthy to read than genuinely hot and sexy. else.
The writing swings between tepid descriptions of the body with words like “nether regions” but then switches violently to “f*cking” and other words I won’t write here, sometimes within a few sentences of one another. And yet, the whole time you’ll find yourself reading this knowing that the protagonist is cheating on her ill husband, which just feels…icky?
Now, to be fair there is some foreshadowing and the ending works quite well to reframe Lily’s actions in a new light but there’s not much in the way of internalizing through guilt or drama for our protagonist.
The biggest problem with The Book of the Most Precious Substance though is the sheer lack of tension or obstacles for Lily to overcome. Now, had the book decided that Lucas and Lily HAD to have sex in order for Lily’s relationship with her husband to improve then it could have raised some interesting internal dilemmas and reframed Lily as a sympathetic protagonist. Instead, she fantasizes constantly about a more carefree life, almost looking at her taking care of Abel (her husband) as a job than anything else. It’s perhaps ironic then that the absolute best chapters in the book come from Lily reminiscing fondly about her husband and the time they had together.
The dialogue and prose is going to be hit or miss for many people too and this is one of those books that has a tendency to say in four sentences what could have been said in four words. Be prepared for numerous instances of: “”Huh?” Said Lucas. “Huh?” I said. We both wondered what that meant together.” etc. It feels clumsy to read and while the dialogue is certainly authentic to how people would speak, and the characters feel like real people (except a character here called Wh*re, who embraces her nickname for some reason) it’s almost like the book is torn between wanting to be a screenplay (or a movie adaptation) and a genuine novel.
As someone who hasn’t read any of Sara Gran’s previous novels, I do appreciate that this could just be a personal preference but The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a misfire. Its story is repetitive and not very fulfilling, while the constant descriptions of hotel rooms and awkward sex scenes do nothing to add much flavour to this mundane fetch quest.
Verdict - 4/10