By Melissa Maerz
Updated January 07, 2015 at 05:00 AM EST

For hardcore film obsessives, there’s no movie so thrillingly obscure as one that doesn’t exist. ”Lost movies appeal to our sense of doomed artistry,” a film scholar tells our heroine, Ceinwen Reilly, in the absorbing debut novel Missing Reels. ”We build up heroic concepts of certain directors. Then, when their work is lost, we imagine what we’re missing as even better than the movies we have.”

That sums up Missing Reels‘ romantic view of cinema nicely, although these words might be hard for Ceinwen to hear. She’s living in New York during the 1980s, when the revival-house scene is booming. And when she’s not dressing up like Jean Harlow to work as a shopgirl at Vintage Visions, or forcing her gay roommates/BFFs to watch Shanghai Express, she’s hunting for her own lost classic, The Mysteries of Udolpho, a silent film that may or may not star her downstairs neighbor Miriam. When Ceinwen meets Matthew, a dashing British mathematician, Missing Reels starts to feel like a classic movie itself: There’s a dramatic screwball romance and an exciting hard-boiled mystery, as well as one too many monologues. There’s also enough trivia to delight any cinephile. Glancing at Ceinwen’s outfit, Miriam says that if she really wanted to look like Jean Harlow, she wouldn’t wear underwear.

The film-snob debates in this book will remind you why so many great relationships are built upon shared passions. That’s true for Ceinwen and Matthew, and maybe also for Farran Smith Nehme and you, if you’re a movie buff. Once named GQ‘s Film Blogger of the Year for her classic-film criticism site, Self-Styled Siren, Nehme knows how to mix real-life history with fictional directors, actors, and films, making the true stuff just as compelling as the imagined. By the end, you’ll be desperate to see The Mysteries of Udolpho. So maybe it’s a good thing that like all the best movies, it doesn’t exist. A-