The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault

18th October 2011

* I received an egalley of this book through NetGalley by the publisher Delacorte. Buy a copy from Indiebound.

Today in my ESL classes, we did an exercise using their vocabulary journals (when they run across a new word, they write it down to define it). They had to take ten words and write sentences using the words correctly. Then we hashed out the meanings and usages to correct any problems. One student used the word neglect, and as I wrote the different uses, I stopped to really look at the word. It’s suddenly looked strange and foreign to me. I’ve always done this. Some words, when you really look at them or think about them, are very odd, and The Broken Teaglass takes that strangeness to a whole new level.

Billy goes to work for the Samuelson Dictionary company, and it’s as eccentric a place as you can imagine. The first day he is set to read the front matter of the dictionary and listens as the man next to him answers phone calls from old women and an occasional blowhard who wants to be proven right about a particular word. The atmosphere is oppressive in its silence and in the words that are, literally, everywhere. To verify definitions, pronunciations, and usage, each editor must consult the cits, citations gathered from books, magazines, and newspapers.

Mona, another editor, finds one cit very different from the others. It’s longer and seems to describe Samuelson itself, and it has a hint of violence in it. She’s intrigued but cannot find the book listed anywhere. When she runs across another with a darker tinge to it, she enlists Billy’s help, and the two begin a journey to put together the story of the broken teaglass.

This is a strange little book, as there is no mystery in the traditional sense – no dead body with a murderer or murderess to hunt down. As citations are gathered, both Billy and Mona, as well as the reader, have a fairly good idea of why the citations are there, as a sort of hushed Catholic confessional. However, the story amid the story has an emotional charge that really struck me, and I really loved that Billy and Mona piece together the story for themselves, not altogether sure what they’ll find or why they must find it.

  • I don’t know whether I will read this one. I read In Search of the Rose Notes and wasn’t impressed, so I may need to put some time in between the two books.

    • I understand. I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, but I ended up really thinking it worked well. It helps that I liked Billy, the main character.

  • Yvette

    I read this a while back, Jenn. Didn’t know what to make of it. But on the whole, I liked it. Enjoyed reading your review. You hit the nail on the head, I think.

    • I felt the same way after reading it. Someone on Twitter asked me about it. It’s just an odd little book, but in the end, yes, I liked it. Thanks! It was definitely not an easy review to write.

  • Anonymous

    This one sounds like something that I’d enjoy. I’m glad you liked it.

    Oh, and we’ll have to compare vocabulary assignments some day. I have a “Unfamiliar Words List” that my dev students have to make 🙂

    • Ah, vocabulary. The toughest thing for me with my ESL students is spelling. It’s super difficult trying to help them with it, particularly as it’s always come easy to me.