At this point in my experience with Lily King, I know what to expect: a meticulously rendered milieu with quietly simmering emotions that are universal despite the very specific circumstances and locales of our narrators, and then BAM! a figurative punch to the face, and then the throat, and then the solar plexus, rendering this reader completely helpless, tears unexpectedly streaming down my face after being lulled by her deceptively tranquil prose. She did this with Euphoria, a story loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, and six years later — the same amount of time that it takes Writers & Lovers’ protagonist Casey to finish writing her book — here I am in my kitchen, feeling as if Ms King has plunged her hand into my psyche, rummaged round and brought out my raw and bleeding heart for everyone to see, again.
Here’s the thing, tho: this is an entirely commonplace story being told here. Casey is 31 years-old, a former prodigy turned struggling author who supports herself by waitressing at a tony Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant. It’s 1997, her mother has recently died, and she’s grieving and trying to make sense of her own life while figuring out the romantic relationships she finds herself in. It’s essentially a bildungsroman with a slightly older protagonist than usual. Her two main romances, or the men she’s trying to choose between, serve as stand-ins for greater issues and desires, not that that’s ever stated so bluntly. Oskar, the older established author with two delightful children, represents stability and family and the future she wants, all in one convenient, immediate package. Silas, whom she lusts after, is talented but erratic: the perfect embodiment of the bohemian life she currently leads. While I wanted her to choose neither, it actually worked out better than I thought it would in the end. Mostly, I admired how she didn’t have to compromise, how all her hard work and self-belief paid off even as I felt deeply her struggles with poverty and the American health insurance system and just some really shitty people and situations. Those restaurant scenes brought me back so vividly to my own restaurant years that I felt traumatized all over again; by the midpoint of the book, I empathized so deeply with Casey that it felt like she was a former co-worker telling me all about her life while we were waiting for our tables to clear.
So it’s gonna sound really weird that what made me cry had nothing to do with any of the plot but was almost entirely born of how Casey feels about literature and reading and writing. In one passage, she’s talking about a book she read where the author (like Ms King, in yet another of her delightful and sly fillips of self-reference) managed “to simulate consciousness, and it’s contagious because while you’re reading it rubs off on you and your mind starts working like that for a while. I love that. That reverberation for me is what is most important about literature. Not themes or symbols or the rest of that crap they teach in high school.” What Ms King cares about most is how literature makes you feel. I have literally never had anyone tell me that, much less tell me that that’s okay. Having her validate my own approach to a thing so important to me that I’ve made it my chosen work, well, it felt like manna to the starving, to a part of me that I didn’t even know needed love and sunshine and care.
It isn’t just that I was also once a professional waitress who harbored dreams of writing, with a messy personal life that involved both erratic young men and seemingly more stable older ones. It isn’t that I automatically parse out metaphors and themes after years of being told that that’s the “point” of reading. It’s that Casey recognizes that joy comes from knowing what you want and what you love and being brave enough to stand up for yourself and what you value, even, or perhaps especially, when what you value is books. I’d never in my life been more stunned by one person’s absolute devotion to literature, by the beautiful things she says about reading, and especially about writing her own novel. While I love, for the most part, the life that I live now, I envy Casey’s ability to not compromise, to choose what’s right for her and to have that be recognized as okay if not better.
Writers & Lovers is a love letter to all the people who love books and the creative life but have been told to be more practical. It is a bit of a fairytale, but the best kind, with the protagonist beholden to no one but herself and her beliefs, whose courage never veers over into selfishness or unkindness. I loved it so much, even as it tore my heart apart.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King was published March 3rd 2020 by Grove Press and is available from all good booksellers including
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