First-time novelist Sheridan Hay gets off to a promising start with The Secret of Lost Things, a coming-of-age story set in a New York City bookshop that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Strand (where native Australian Hay was once employed). Rosemary Savage has led a sheltered life in a small Tasmanian town, but when her mother dies suddenly, the 18-year-old is left orphaned. With the encouragement of her mother's best friend, Rosemary leaves for New York with only $300 in her pocket, in search of a new beginning. She thinks she's found one after being hired at the Arcade, where she works with a number of colorful characters, including blind, albino assistant manager Walter Geist, dapper and attractive Oscar and transsexual cashier Pearl. The idealistic and lonely Rosemary soon befriends Pearl and fixates on the supremely uninterested Oscar as a romantic prospect, but even after becoming Walter's assistant, she still can't straighten out her feelings about him. But Walter is as attracted to Rosemary as she is to Oscar, and this odd triangle propels the mystery portion of the novel, which centers on a lost Herman Melville manuscript that Walter appears to have located. Seeking to win Oscar's favor, Rosemary tells him Walter's secret, and Oscar's quest to secure the manuscript culminates in a tragic night that affects all of the Arcade's employees.
Rosemary's journey from naivete to self-knowledge is realistically portrayed and compelling, as are Hay's loving depictions of 1980s-era New York City and the wonder of a young girl discovering it for the first time. However, The Secret of Lost Things never quite finds its way when it comes to the mystery plot—somehow the quieter chronicle of Rosemary's personal growth and rewarding relationships with Pearl and another mother-figure, a surly motel clerk, is far more gripping. Still, this is a solid first effort, and one that fans of thoughtful, book-centered novels won't want to miss.