‘Writers & Lovers’, by Lily King: NPR

Lily King’s new novel, her fifth, won’t transport you to an exotic location like her latest did, but oh my god, it’s a good read. After Euphoria (2014), a richly documented and imagined tragic love triangle inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, King returns to her comfort zone: a distressed young woman finding her way at the end of the 20th century in New England.

Set in 1997 – two years before the publication of King’s first novel, Time for Pleasure – Writers and Lovers is narrated by Casey Peabody, 31, who struggles to finish writing her debut novel under the crushing weight of college loan debt and grief over the recent and unexpected death of her mother. She’s a teary, anxious mess – but so sympathetic you might want to bake her cookies.

No one could accuse Casey of lack of discipline. When she does get to sleep, she gets up early to walk her owner’s dog so she can return to her office at 6:30 a.m. to write a few hours before cycling three miles to Cambridge, Massachusetts for the “insane distractions” from her demanding waitress job. By the time she cycles back to her wet, converted garden shed in Brookline, it’s past midnight.

When we meet Casey, she feels overwhelmed by a passionate affair with a poet she met at a prestigious writing residency she attended too soon after her mother died. Like many of King’s early heroines, Casey was unlucky in love, starting with a painfully flawed father and moving on to a series of “intermittently, here and then gone” boyfriends.

Muriel, one of her rare friends who has not given up on writing – and a shining example of female friendship – brings Casey to a book signing where she meets two lovers who come to represent her two roads in a yellow wood: Oscar, an older and famous author who has been raising his adorable (bordering on sick) sons solo since losing his young wife to cancer, and one of the students from Oscar’s workshop, a high school teacher with a chipped front tooth and a rusty car. The novel allows us to wonder in which direction Casey is going to turn.

There is nothing exotic or surprising new about this story, but Writers and lovers is striking proof that literature doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be absolutely convincing. In fact, King’s novel – about the choices and sacrifices it takes to hang on to a dream – would be a valuable addition to curriculum writing. Not only does Casey’s story show how hard it can be to believe in yourself, stay the course, and finish the damn book when all your friends get paychecks and promotions, get married and have babies – but also, the assurance that you don’t. you have to break the mold to write a good book.

Of course, writing as well as King helps. But you also need to develop tough skin. After Casey’s arrogant owner laughed at her, “You know … I just find it amazing that you think you have something to say,” Casey thinks, “I don’t write because I think I have something. to say. I write because if I don’t, everything is even worse. “

Among the elements that make Writers and lovers the small, perfectly calibrated details, the convincing conversations and the funny spirit are therefore winners. “Hopefully your next six years will be a little more exciting, sweetheart,” comments a postal worker when Casey says how long she’s been working on the stack of manuscripts she’s sending to potential agents. “Still there,” the same employee remarks when Casey returns to mail a revised copy. “Yeah.” “Well, I can’t shoot you for trying,” said the clerk.

The novel, filled with believable lows and well-deserved highs, launches with ironic punches at men who don’t listen (including several callous and blunt doctors, like the gynecologist whose exam makes Casey “feel like a car that is lifted for a tire change “), unlike some who to do listen – well enough to really hear.

Writers and lovers is a book about passion, desire, sorrow, determination and finding your way. It is also a desire for love, family and success. And it’s about learning to stop worrying so much about how men “perceive you, to the great detriment of how you yourself feel about them.”

At one nadir, King’s narrator stops at a bookstore on his way to work and looks through William Styron’s memoirs of depression, Visible darkness. She notes: “The writing has that austere lucidity of someone trying to tell you the truest thing they know.”

It’s not exactly King’s success in this novel. Writers and lovers is too generously infused with heart, soul, spirit and wisdom to be called harsh.

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