This was one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read, with a mix of history, mystery, philosophy, magic and erotica that was most unexpected. Lily Albrecht is a writer turned book dealer who lives in a farmhouse in upstate New York. Several years ago she met husband Abel, the love of her life. Abe was a brilliant man, a writer and professor who inspired others and drew friends and colleagues to their home as guests. Then he started to forget things and after spending a fortune on neurologists, tests and treatments she’d come to accept that Abe was not getting better. It was like a form of dementia. He was now using a wheelchair and was completely mute, and Lily was left grieving for him while he was still alive. With full time nursing care from Awe, Lily is able to travel into NYC to run a stand at a book fair. It’s there she runs into Lucas, a librarian and book dealer friend, and it’s through him that Lily first hears of the book.
They are approached by a third party who knows someone willing to pay upwards of half a million dollars for the book. Some of the most wealthy book collectors in the world tend to covet books about magic or sex. Dissatisfied with the paltry millions they have, they want to look at ancient ways to manipulate and accumulate power. This book has both, something Lily jokingly refers to as ‘sex magic’, but as she listens to how the book works she does feel a stirring. Sex is something she and Abe had to lay aside a long time ago. She’s used to early nights, flannel pyjamas and a bed to herself. She wouldn’t consider herself sexy, but as she sits with Lucas and they talk about the steps to the magic of the book. It contains a symbol, something that’s not quite a circle and not quite a triangle. The first step requires the sweat from a woman’s neck and from there each step requires a bodily fluid elicited during sex. The final step is to anoint the book with the most precious substance – a substance that a woman produces at her most aroused. Once all the steps are complete, the pair will receive the thing they most wish for which is usually money and power beyond their wildest dreams.
Finding this book takes them on an erotic odyssey from New York to LA, the humidity of New Orleans, then on to Munich and Paris. Lily and Lucas will find the book, convince the collector to sell it to their buyer and hopefully make a lot of money. They will also embark on a sexual relationship with no boundaries and no restrictions and neither tells the other what they’re hoping for from the book. Of course the money will be incredible, it would help Abe enormously, but Lily wants something more. She wants Abe back. More than that, she wants Abe to return to himself with all the vitality, intelligence and allure he’s always had. She wants them to spend evenings talking about books and watch him hosting friends at their home. She wants Able to have his life back. In the meantime she’s going to enjoy her first vacation for a long time, staying in five star hotels and experimenting with Lucas while they try to find the elusive book.
This is an incredible, escapist, fantasy and travelogue, that could have been quite shallow and empty without the skill of the author. She has put so much genuine emotion and compassion into the story, along with the gritty realism of living with a loved one who is leaving you piece by piece. Lily’s memories of Abe and their relationship are heartbreaking when you realise he is now a motionless, mute, man unable to do anything but watch TV. Lily emphasises the loss of this man’s intelligence. He looms large in her memory and there’s a little bit of hero worship with the love she has for him. She describes the loss of his voice, their friends slowly disappearing, the loneliness of separating their sleeping arrangements and the torture of Abe being there, but not. It’s heartbreaking and I’ve been through exactly this experience as I slowly lost my husband fifteen years ago. Perhaps this is why I empathised with Lily so strongly and I understood why she was taken in by this adventure and by being desired for the first time in a long time. It’s like watching a flower bloom as she slowly awakens again, but even though I could understand her need I worried that somehow the book was exploiting her vulnerability. I didn’t get to know Lucas as well as Lily, so his motivations were slightly unclear. He mentioned being used to a five star lifestyle, but his money running low. This felt greedy or shallow when compared to Lily’s motivation. I worried that most people wanting to acquire the book were greedy and materialistic and there would be some sort of come-uppance, but I didn’t know if Lily deserved that. Each time they performed a step, the magic felt dark and it seemed to have an addictive quality. A new avenue would open up as if the book was drawing them closer and making their path easier. It wanted to be found, but why?
The pace towards the end really picks up and I was racing through the action with my jaw dropped open. However, it was the chapter after Paris that really hit me emotionally. It emphasised how much we look at the people we’ve lost with rose tinted spectacles. No matter how much we feel nostalgic for a certain place and time in our lives, it can’t be replicated. It reminded me of the saying ‘you can’t wade into the same river twice; because you have changed and so has the river’. I’ve read erotica where it’s all sexual acts with barely any story in between. This was an incredible story that I could have read happily without the sex, but to make the sexual acts an integral part of the story and the search was clever. The author has achieved an intelligent and fantastical book, that succeeds in being both erotic and a fascinating mystery.
Published 30th August 2022 by Faber and Faber
Meet The Author
Sara Gran is the author of The Book of The Most Precious Substance. Previous work includes Saturn’s Return to New York, Come Closer, Dope, Marigold, and the Claire DeWitt series. She is the founder of small press Dreamland Books and writes for television and film.
4 thoughts on “The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sarah Gran.”
It was both fun and thought-provoking. The end part was quite sad, wasn’t it?
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*spoiler alert* yes, I felt sad for her. It made me wonder whether the book and the things she did to achieve her wish changed their relationship? I think Abe was perhaps always like that, but Lily remembered him differently because the reality of their relationship was coloured by her loss of him. That made me even sadder though. Xx
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Very good point. We tend to idealise people when we no longer have them properly in our lives.
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Yes, that’s what I thought. She pined for him so long she only remembered the good times.