Writers & Lovers by Lily King
“I can’t find one moment, one sentence, that’s any good. Even the scenes I’ve clung to when all else seems lost—those first pages I wrote in Pennsylvania and the chapter I wrote in Albuquerque that poured out of me like a visitation—have dimmed. It all looks like a long stream of words, like someone with a disease that involves delusions has written them. I am wasting my life. I am wasting my life. It pounds like a heartbeat.”
Confession: I bought this book a month ago, read the first few pages, and returned it. It just screamed “thirtysomething woman who can’t love.” I used to gobble up books by authors who wrote these kinds of stories (Meghan Daum, Elissa Schappel, Melissa Bank, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, etc.), some with more literary staying power (Moore, Gaitskill) than the others. There’s always a dead or absent parent on the woman’s mind from the get-go. There’s always a recent love affair or marriage gone awry. They all have crappy jobs that are beneath them and unrealized dreams of writing or painting or just being somebody. They have eating disorders, insomnia, panic attacks. They all make many, many Bad Decisions.
This was a highly anticipated book for me, because I had loved Euphoria. A strong recommendation from my mother and seeing it on all the ‘best of’ and ‘favorites’ lists convinced me to give it another go, and I’m glad I did.
The truth is: Writers & Lovers falls squarely into this “women who can’t love” category in many ways. Casey is a 31-year-old woman who’s just lost her mother, had her heart broken, works as a waitress, is drowning in student loan debt, lives in a potting shed, and is trying to write the Great American Novel. But where this works and others fade is that Casey feels singular. She feels like a real person. And while King weighs her down with issues (many, many issues) that are often quickly resolved in her favor, none of the choices she makes seem out of character. Her voice is true, and her heart is open, if broken. And one thing that makes Casey different from those other protagonists: she writes. She stays true to her dream. She’s serious about it–it means more to her than anything–and this lifts the book up, makes it something more than the rom-com it kind of turns out to be.
Because that’s the thing: this book can’t seem to decide what it wants to be or where it’s going. I’m good with books that are both sad and funny, but at times this veers off into weighty, literary sadness, and then veers with reckless abandon into slapstick. It picks things up and then drops them like hot potatoes. In the first part of the book, much is made about Casey’s ability to speak several languages and desire to learn more, but then that mostly just goes away. But that, coupled with many mentions of a Spanish lover she moved to Barcelona to be with, gives the impression that the book started out going in one direction, and then the author changed course. The whole book read this way for me–a book with echoes of other books it could have been, some better, some worse.
Casey’s pursued by two men, Oscar the famous novelist and Silas the high school teacher/would-be writer. Neither, really, seems to be a bad choice. This is another thing that lifts the narrative out of the usual realm of “women who can’t love” stories. The only problem I had here was that one man feels very well-thought out and specific as a character, where the other one feels more like an idea or foil for Casey’s state of mind. That leads me to another–I don’t want to say problem, because it doesn’t kill the book’s momentum or make it less enjoyable, but there are way too many characters. Outside her love interests, recently deceased mother, her father, and stepmother, there’s her brother Caleb and his partner Phil, her landlord Adam, her ex-lover(s), her best friend Muriel, her best friend at work, Harry, and the entire restaurant staff. Everyone gets a mention, their quirks and tics, and while this works to set the scene in some ways, in other ways, it gets confusing. Is Marcus the owner or the chef? Which one was Victor? Who is Fabiola again? This also means that important or interesting characters who deserve more development (her brother, best friend Muriel, co-worker Mary Hand) don’t really get it. And Harry feels a stock character. Actually, even with their tics and quirks, they all kind of feel stock.
Where the book sings is when Casey is focused on other books or writing. King writes about the frustrations and pleasures of writing so beautifully (obviously, she knows them well, having written five novels). Casey’s deep love of literature also feels very true.
“The hardest thing about writing is getting in every day, breaking through the membrane. The second-hardest thing is getting out. Sometimes I sink down too deep and come up too fast. Afterward I feel wide open and skinless. The whole world feels moist and pliable.”
But Casey also faces ALL THE PROBLEMS, and many of them just fade away or are resolved very quickly. That made it feel, again, like King planned to take the book in one direction and then decided, no, don’t want to do that and so just found a way to get out of it.
King’s writing is clean and rarely falters, and I plan to pick up the other three books by her I haven’t read. Ultimately I very much enjoyed this book, and as someone who’s trying to write a novel herself, I empathized with Casey. I also learned a lot of things I need to consider in regards to my own writing, so that’s never a loss.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King