Review: Writers & Lovers by Lily King
This was a very lovely, complicated book - it covered some difficult topics but was paradoxically a very easy read, with some very good and occasionally great language.
The story, roughly, is that of a young woman who has just lost her mother to a sudden and unexpected heart attack, is struggling with her student and credit card debt, and desperately trying to finish the novel she's been working on for six years. There's also a romance subplot worked into it, where the narrator - Casey; real name Camila - pretty simultaneously meets two different men who each present very contrasting avenues for her life to go down. The romance subplot is actually, for me, the least interesting aspect of the book; although the way Lily King portrays the tension in Casey as she tries to decide which is more important to her, and the conversations she has with her coworkers about it, is realistic and vivid.
I think the one thing Lily King doesn't do well in this novel is the differentiation between Casey and the other characters in the novel, which is something that first-person narrations do oftentimes suffer from. Because we spend so much time in the narrator's head, the other characters in the book never feel as fully developed or as real as Casey does - which is a bit of a shame, because Casey is such a nuanced, complex monologue, who's so searingly honest with herself while also exposing some pretty massive blind spots, it would have made the novel feel a bit more fully developed if we had been given that same honest, sometimes difficultly so, look into the other characters.
I also think the resolution comes a bit too easily - Casey finds a job and finally gets picked up by an agent, and even though we've seen her struggle through the past 300 pages, the ending just feels a bit too pat. It is possible that I felt this way because things start going right for Casey (after, to be fair, a very long stretch of things going wrong) very quickly after her first therapy appointment - almost as if King is trying to make a point that, when people have the financial and social support to look after their mental health, they can start achieving to the full reach of their potential. So I now find myself in the slightly weird position of completely agreeing with that hypothesis, but being annoyed that it was evinced anyway.
As briefly mentioned above, I think the romance angle of the novel was the one that felt the least well-explored. It was a bit tangential to the main narrative thrust of Casey's slowly mounting anxiety and her relationship with words. However, Casey's reactions to the world around her are so pinpointed, precise, and perfectly pitched, I found myself forgetting I was reading a book and wasn't just having a conversation with her. The way she interacts with her slightly skeezy landlord, her acerbic inner comments about some of the people she works with - even her friends! - and how she observes the microcosm of the world in the restaurant she works at. All of it was so realistic and vivid, I had slightly PTSD-tinted flashbacks of my time working in a Nespresso store in New York.
The thing Lily King does very best in the novel, I think, is the way Casey sees, notices, and then shrugs off the casual, ingrained obnoxious-yet-not-yet-noxiously-harmful misogyny she keeps encountering as she moves through her day-to-day life. The landlord who muses about there not being an appetite for more books by women because haven't there already been enough female-centric stories; the male manager who dismisses a comment about blowjobs by a male colleague as 'just a joke' even though it made Casey deeply uncomfortable and the escalating retribution of that colleague for being reported that goes ignored, dismissed, and palmed off as 'harmless pranks'; Casey's ingrained fear of not being enough, of having to prove her genius, in a way that the male aspiring writers around her just do not share. How Oscar, one of Casey's potential partners, feels cheated of greatness because he was due to achieve it, even as the successful female authors around him achieve it even though they weren't owed it in the way he was. How Silas, the other potential partner, doesn't want to get involved with Casey because she has too much baggage, but it's totally fine for him to take off on a random cross-country roadtrip because he 'needed to get away' with no real explanation or justification. How Oscar regularly comments on how much younger than him Casey is, and how that's a turn-on for him - how he can take care of her, but she should help him proofread and edit his new manuscript before she works on the revisions for her own novel. So much of that resonated with me, in a way that King obviously intended it to; she has obviously spent so much of her life and career internalizing all these annoyances, rolling her eyes at them, and then pouring them all out in this book with the vividness and low-level, implacable anger that so many of us feel. Reading those sequences made me recall with painful clarity all of the times I've rolled my eyes at a male boss's dumb, misguided comment that obviously hints at a larger problem but just isn't a big enough deal to make a fuss over - but the way all those comments stack up to a weight you can carry around for the rest of your life.
King also describes a relationship with words - Casey's love for writing - in a way that is achingly, wonderfully romantic, more so than any of the actual love stories. There is a real sense of adoration in the way Casey talks about her favorite authors, and her relationship with writing. The way writing and words is, for Casey, both a lifeline and the wave that drowns her was a really well-explored theme that permeates the rest of the novel and the rest of her relationships in a way that felt both realistic, reasonable and plausible. Plus, as a fellow adorer of words, can highly relate.
The way King interweaves Casey's backstory into the present tense narration is also excellently well done. The grief of losing her mother, shaded in by the complexity of her relationship with her; the anger, the trauma and the guilt of her broken relationship with her father after he belittled her writing and she found out he was a sexual predator (he was fired from the high school where he taught after Casey found out that he spied on his students from glory holes drilled into his office). The part that I most painfully relatable, however, is how Casey struggles with her cancer scare at the age of thirty-one, and how she grapples with the fear of her own mortality and the lack of any impact or legacy she will leave behind.
Also, some of the metaphors and sentences were so beautiful they left me floored.
All in all, this is a really lovely, really well done book with a complicated, sometimes unlikable protagonist that is easy to identify with, and some beautiful language. It tackles some difficult topics with compassion and ease, and you get lost in the story despite those complexities really easily. If you want a contemporary novel that focuses on some aspects of modern life that can feel brushed under the rug in everybody's self-presentation, then this is for you - I can recommend!