In “The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper,” sixty-nine year old widower Arthur Pepper is reluctantly sorting through his late wife Miriam’s belongings and happens upon a hidden charm bracelet, jewelry he’d never seen her wear during their 40 years together. The bracelet is lovely old gold, and the charms – an elephant, a book, an artist’s palette, a locket, a tiger, a flower, a thimble and a ring – mean nothing to him. Puzzled and curious, he examines the elephant closely and finds an engraving, a series of numbers, which he recognizes as a telephone number.
Arthur, who has been living a quietly sad and lonely life in the year since his wife’s sudden death, is hooked. He dials the number and, feeling rather foolish, explains who he is and asks if anyone knew Miriam. To his astonishment, he learns that Miriam had worked as an ayah for a family in India before their marriage. She is remembered with great love by the now-grown man she’d cared for as a boy. Arthur listens to stories of his wife’s adventures in a foreign land and cannot fathom why she kept this a secret from him. The Miriam he loved for 40 years never wanted to travel out of England, much less to India. Stunned and shaken, he starts to question how well he knew his wife and wonders what else he does not know about her – and what is the significance of the other charms.
Homebody Arthur, who hides from well-meaning neighbors who are worried about him since his loss and barely goes outside, begins a quest to find out what the charms meant to Miriam. And quite a quest it is, with fierce tigers, wayward tortoises, naked artist’s models, angry ex-lovers and a bevy of lovable English eccentrics. Arthur’s adventures exploring his wife’s hidden past draw him out of his loneliness, exile and propel him into the here and now. It forces him to look at his life and his relationships, and teaches him that he is still alive and can choose to be happy.
This is a slight, cheering novel full of endearing characters with considerable charm. It’s impossible not to root for Arthur and the odd assortment of friends he collects, and if the plot is fairly predictable, the sentiment is real and the message of hope is irresistible.