Dutton: 437 pp., $26.95
Three years ago, a first-time novelist and longtime English teacher named Selden Edwards popped up on bestseller lists with "The Little Book," a time-traveling fantasy that included stops in late-20th century San Francisco, 1950s New England and World War II era London, with a great deal of lingering in fin de siècle Vienna.
"The Little Book," in fact, opens as Wheeler Burden wanders the streets of the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is 1897, a somewhat bewildering time for a man who won't be born until 1941. But Wheeler adapts: He haunts coffeehouses, encounters Freud, Mark Twain and a very young Adolf Hitler, and has other memorable experiences with a youthful version of his father and an alluring woman named Weezie Putnam. By the end of the ambitiously plotted "Little Book," we discover the why of it all.
Edwards' freshman effort divided critics, but his descriptions of Vienna were singled out for praise, and author interviews reverentially referenced the 30-plus years he devoted to its writing.
Now we have the sequel, "The Lost Prince," and readers who are hoping that Edwards will continue with his "big ideas" — destiny, history, the role of the individual, undying love — will not be disappointed. His characters are terribly earnest, often anguished, which may be a turnoff for those who have not joined the Selden Edwards universe. The plotlines are complex and sometimes outlandish. But there's no denying the sweetness of unshakable faith that infuses the core of "The Lost Prince."
This time, Edwards views the world through the eyes of Eleanor "Weezie" Putnam, the girl who traveled to Vienna in 1897 in search of an adventure and found one in the arms of Wheeler — a spoiler alert seems necessary — whom readers of "The Little Book" know is her grandson (yes, it is complicated, but not in the way one might imagine).
Eleanor leaves Vienna and returns to Boston with a handwritten journal, Wheeler's journal, which sets the course of her life and, in some sense, the course of the world because it was written by a time-traveler who already knows of the Titanic disaster and the stock market crash of 1929 and … most of the history of the 20th century.
Eleanor's raison d'être is to somehow ensure that the events inscribed in the journal come true and that history won't be rewritten.
"She knew of the great events coming in the years ahead. She was to marry, for better or worse, Frank Burden, a man she didn't love; to raise with him three beautiful and talented children; to become a great social and cultural force in Boston; to count on the support of two extraordinary men, first William James and then Carl Gustav Jung; to watch helplessly the emergence of two horrific worldwide wars; to suffer great loss; and to die an old woman in the same house she had been born in."
And she was to mentor Arnauld Esterhazy, a scholar she first encounters in Vienna, then brings to the U.S. to teach at Boston's venerable St. Gregory's School for Boys.
"The Lost Prince" opens in May 1918 as Eleanor attends a memorial service for Esterhazy, who has somehow veered off the path. She has received notice of his death in Europe toward the end of World War I, thus upending one of the central plotlines of her future life. He was supposed to return to Boston and St. Gregory's after the war, resume his teaching career and become an academic hero and mentor to hundreds, including Eleanor's son and grandson, Wheeler. Eleanor pledges to somehow disprove his death.
Edwards includes quite a bit of backfilling of Eleanor's story, and much of "The Lost Prince" is devoted to Eleanor's unerring belief that Esterhazy cannot be dead and her subsequent journey to ensure that her destiny unfolds as written in the journal. Eleanor slogs her way through postwar Europe and hellish hospitals in her quest. Assisted by her contacts with two of the 20th century's most famous students of psychiatry, she also spends a fair amount of time plowing through theories of the unconscious mind.
Is it complicated? Yes, but Edwards' fans might suggest that detractors are missing the point: that for some, unerring faith is the most liberating force in the world.