The Secret of Lost Things is a captivating literary who-done-it. After her mother dies, an eighteen-year-old from Tasmania makes a transformative journey to New York. Rosemary takes a job at the Arcade, a bookstore that sells everything from paperbacks to valuable rare books. At the Arcade she begins her unique education.
The Arcade’s employees are each eccentric in their own way. Mr. Pike is extremely parsimonious, Mr. Weiss is an albino, Mr. Mitchell looks like a large Australian bird, Pearl is a opera-singing transvestite, and Oscar is an emotionally-distant man who keeps Rosemary under a Svengali-like thrall. Rosemary, however, feels they each have something to teach her.
Like Ahab in Moby-Dick, each of the characters is obsessed with something. Instead of a whale, all seem to be obsessed with finding a lost Herman Melville manuscript, The Isle of the Cross.
Each of the characters in the Arcade are objects in a Wunderkammen; in fact, Hays has Rosemary visit Peabody’s Wunderkammen. Mr. Weiss views Rosemary as a “curiousity” because she comes from Tasmania and because of her wild, red hair.
In Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Pike, Rosemary tries to imagine a benevolent and stern father. She is herself, like Ishmael of Moby Dick, an orphan searching for her identity.
In a subplot, Hays introduces Lilian and her son Sergio, one of the “lost” from Argentina’s dirty war.
At his request, Rosemary begins a strange collusion with Oscar Jarno. She also becomes, against her will, an assistant to Mr. Weiss. In a sense, she is their object to do with what they will; that is, until she breaks free from their spell.
Repressed desire, madness, revenge, embezzlement, betrayal, and the lost manuscript by Herman Melville all play a part in this auspicious literary debut.