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May 7, 2020

Writers & Lovers, by Lily King

I was a bit wary of Writers & Lovers, by Lily King. I’d read her previous book, Euphoria, and I remember finding it a bit wanting (I am in the minority in this assessment), but then Maria Semple recommended this new novel on Instagram, and Maria Semple is a person I trust. I started reading it though, and thought: this is a novel that I’ve read before. The young woman who can’t get her life together, hold her liquor and whole makes terrible choices (see The Dud Avocado, Bridget Jones Diary) meets Lucky Jim, but for girls (and it’s different for girls) meets the MFA novel (any work of fiction that references Breadloaf, except for Ducks, Newburyport). “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say,” our narrator is told on the second page, by the man who owns the property where Casey rents a potting shed that stinks of mould. She bakes cookies in a toaster oven, and almost everyone she ever knew who was a writer has gotten married and/or gone to law school. Casey is 31.

But I haven’t actually read this book before, unless you count Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse where Lily Briscoe realizes her vision. Is Casey a fool or not to believe that she can make it as a writer, that the struggle is worth it, six whole years on a novel that maybe nobody will ever read? She makes money waiting tables at a restaurant in Harvard Square, she’s up to her eyeballs in debt and regret and heartache, and desperately mourning the death of her mother. An older writer (a widow with two young children) invites her into his orbit, clearly with domestic intentions, and maybe this is the answer to all her problems, but there is also the other guy, the one with whom the spark is undeniable—but right before their first date, he took off across the country on his motorcycle.

I am unaccustomed to reading about a woman who is flawed and who takes her art seriously, and I am unaccustomed to art that treats such a woman seriously, instead of as the butt of a joke. The book begins in familiar territory but then takes its reader to unexpected places, to previously unexplored terrain. How do you know you’re going to make it, until you make it, and it reminded me of reading Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the two of them starting out in their careers, writing to save their own lives. And there’s a lightness to the tone that is possibly deceptive, that any story that’s such a delight to behold must necessarily be less than profound. That any woman who fails to be a perfect candidate must necessarily fail to triumph.

I loved this book, set in 1997, back you had to look up literary agents in guides at the library, and spend your last dollars mailing out your manuscript to the lot of them. A book that, as I said, begins in familiar territory, the usual tropes—the douchebag writer guy who’ll break your heart, the writer waiting tables, the possibly creepy mentor, the writer friend with whom one is in unspoken competition. But this portrait of the artist as a no-longer-young woman does something different and novel with all of these pieces, which is why the story so comes alive on the page.

One thought on “Writers & Lovers, by Lily King”

  1. Oh, it sounds like I would like this one.

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