For a book that could have been the Holy Grail for wordies everywhere, Emily Arsenault’s The Broken Teaglass was a let down. The setting for a brilliant mystery novel is there: an intriguing job, a saucy love interest, an unsolved murder, creepy neighbors – books greater than you and me have been built on a foundation of far less. Yet somehow with Teaglass, the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts.
The tidbits divulging the behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionaries are priceless. For word-lovers and budding linguists, the questions of “who gets to decide which words are real?” is finally answered, complete with counter-theories and the philosophy behind the process all tied up with a neat little bow: in a thoughtful piece of dialogue, characters debate whether to search for new words only in text, or to include conversation as well. Arsenault uses her characters wisely to explain some very murky ideologies.
But the rest of it, the side stories and the intrigues surrounding such a rich setting, are poorly executed. The novel, it seems, exists in two disjointed acts. Act One focuses on our protagonist Billy’s neighbors who offer him conversation and a beer at the end of the day and offer the reader an unsettling feeling that maybe Billy should lock his door at night. This sentence on page 14 sets it up:
“Maybe it was a sort of omen that my first encounter with Tom was on the very first day of work… He was bald but for a few long clumps of hair growing out of the sides and back of his head, all pulled into a then ponytail at the back. His body matched his hair – stringy, skinny, and formless in his lawn chair.”
Scary, right? Well, not scary for long. By the half-way point in the book, we never really hear from Tom or the rest of the neighbors again. They have dropped off the pages. The “omen” of the first meeting is never revealed.
Instead we are introduced to Billy’s unfortunate struggle with cancer during his senior year of high school. Now five years later, he spends the second half of the book in the throes of an existential crisis as he begins to accept his remission with copious amounts of booze and a lackadaisical approach to dictionary editing. Arsenault makes sure the murder mystery is solved by the end of The Broken Teaglass but for this one tidy knot, there are several loose threads left dangling.