★★★★★ Eytan Halaban’s Her Magnificent Madman follows a twenty-three-year-old high school dropout named Salvador de Pascual, who works at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library doing general custodial work and can’t resist taking the opportunity to pull books off the shelves and get lost in them whenever he has the chance. Sal’s love for literature’s wisdom stands in stark contrast with Professor Beatrix Spear, a twenty-seven-year-old disciple of the Art History Department and a generally joyless individual. The two are drawn together rather serendipitously by Beatrix’s research work on one of the library’s items, a centuries-old relic called the Spanish Document, which many scholars think is worthless, while Sal and Beatrix are both convinced it hides sensational secrets. But when the document ends up in Sal’s possession, the pair’s lives are irrevocably changed by a race to recover it, which pits them against rival professors and street gangs alike—and brings them closer together than either thought possible.
With deeply lyrical writing that reflects the author’s reverence for classic literature, Halaban’s novel mirrors its main characters, jumping between points of bare whimsy and studious straight-forwardness, a technique that works extremely well in keeping readers intellectually engaged with the text. At times, it focuses on thought-provoking questions surrounding the creation and study of art, like how academics often serve as gatekeepers for knowledge, and how attendance at college isn’t really required to make one a valid student of literature. At other points, particularly the back half of the book, it becomes a pulse-pounding adventure story with a slow-burn romance to boot. Most meaningful, perhaps, is the author’s pointed critique of modern academia, which admonishes readers to be wary of preconceived notions surrounding professorships, and to bask in the knowledge that beauty is in the world all around us—and you don’t have to be a wunderkind to see it.