How well can you know a person, even a person you’ve loved and lived with for decades? This is the question posed by Phaedra Patrick’s gentle, funny and wistful first novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.
The curious charms mentioned in the title are not attributes of Arthur Pepper, a rather ordinary pensioner from Yorkshire. They are actual charms found on a bracelet that belonged to his late wife, Miriam. Arthur’s investigations show them to be mementos of specific times, people and places in her life. It seems that the outwardly contented wife and mother that Arthur knew was a very different person before they met and married.
As Arthur uncovers Miriam’s past, the charms of Arthur himself become more evident. Amazingly old-fashioned, he seems not to have come of age in the 1960s but the 1950s or earlier; this made the reviewer think, "Come on, this chap is younger than Mick Jagger." But this is part of the book’s sweetness.
A virgin when he married, Arthur has never been with another woman; even chastely kissing an old friend of Miriam’s makes him feel vaguely adulterous. He dutifully waters his fern, whom he has named Frederica. He treats even the weirdest people he meets on his quest with kindness and frets that his stodginess squashed something adventurous in his wife. Arthur’s charms, in this charmless age, are curious indeed.
Charming, too, is Patrick’s straightforward and unadorned style. Because of this, when Arthur’s grief overwhelms him like the tiger who almost eats him at one point—you have to read the book—it pierces the heart. You root for him every step of the way.