I finished off Heinlein's lost novel, and here's my review: For Us, The Living, Robert A. Heinlein's first novel, written in 1938, is not a lost masterpiece. It is, however, a fascinating piece of writing for the Heinlein fan to ingest. It's not a book you should give to a friend to introduce them to Heinlein, in fact, it works best as what it is, the last piece of Heinlein's work to be published, and it should almost certainly be one of the last pieces someone starting to read Heinlein should attempt.
The book starts with an excellent foreword from Spider Robinson, a friend of Heinlein's, a fan of Heinlein's, and an excellent Sci-Fi writer in his own right. Spider lays it all out for you in the foreword, this book isn't strong on stories, it's strong on ideas. People who found Heinlein's later works too preachy should steer clear, as this book is probably his preachiest. Robinson speculates that Heinlein really wanted to convey his radical ideas, having just lost a political race, and spent too much of the book standing on the proverbial soapbox, and not enough telling a good story. He says that Heinlein learned from this, and went on to become a master storyteller, learning that people are much more likely to sit still for the lecture if it's embedded in a gripping story.
And that leads me to exactly what's wrong with For Us, The Living. There's very little story in it. There is a plot, and it goes like this. Perry, our hero, (n reality a thinly veiled version of Heinlein himself), is involved in a car accident in 1939, and wakes up in the year 2086 in the body of someone who looks very much like himself, but the original inhabitant of the body chose to end his life (shades of Stranger in a Strange Land here). Our Hero was discovered in the snowy Nevada mountains by a woman named Diana, who is a professional dancer and lives in the mountains. She takes him back to her place to recover, and they're lounging around her house naked by the second page of the book.
From then on, the rest of the book is primarily spent following our hero as he is lectured (literally at times) on the ways of the future, covering topics such as polygamy/polyamory, nudism, the stupidty of jealousy, economics, religion, and the treatment of criminals as patients who need to be cured, rather than miscreants who need to be punished. Many of the ideas that turn up later in Heinlein's books, especially his later books, appear here for the first time. The book is very much, as Spider calls it in the foreword, Heinlein's literary DNA. This is the primordial ooze from which the later books, (Time Enough For Love, Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and dozens more) are formed.
I found Heinlein's predictions of the future very interesting. Since the book was written in 1938-1939, the world hadn't witnessed World War II yet, though Heinlein predicts it. In his version, the U.S. stays out of the War, and Europe eventually self-destructs. Heinlein gets quite a bit of the future right, and quite a bit of it wrong. For instance, in 2086, they still haven't landed a man on the moon, though they're working on it. And, while in the future everyone has terminals (seen in later Heinlein novels) from which they can access live video and audio, information is still printed on paper and transported physically via pneumatic (and magnetic) tubes. But, given that it was written before the atomic age, those things are forgiven, and they're part of what makes the book interesting to read.
It's very obvious why this book wasn't published in 1939, it's not very good. Also, much of the subject matter is so controversial and sexual to this day that no major publisher would have dared print it then. The book is a bit rough, and a bit "off" in places. For instance, Heinlein uses a two-page footnote(!) to give us Diana's life story, rather than weave it into the story or the dialogue, something he'd never do in his later work, and the story only starts to get compelling in the last 50 pages or so, once the bulk of the lectures are past us.
So do I recommend this book? Yes and no. If you're a Heinlein fan, and you've read most, if not all, of his other work, then you'll love this book, and you should get a copy right now. It's a great snapshot of Heinlein's writing while he was still struggling to define it himself. If you've never read a Heinlein book, don't start here, pick up Starship Troopers, or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. If you've read a few Heinlein books, read a few more before you try this one, especially Time Enough For Love, and his later works. I've read everything he ever published, and was sad when I finished off The Menace From Earth, as I'd run out of Heinlein to read. This book provided me with one more thrill, and it made me appreciate how strongly Heinlein held his convictions, and how far he came as a writer, from this, his first attempt.
Now that Bob & Ginny Heinlein have passed on, however, this is almost certainly the last significant piece of Heinlein's writing left unpublished, and for us, the living, it's fun to have something new from the Grand Master to curl up with on a cold winter night.