Book review: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

(image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If you’re reading a romantic comedy, such as the utter delight that is The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman, you are meant to sit back happily, watch love unfold through quirrky and lovingly flawed characters and wait expectantly for the inevitable happy ever after.

It’s also quite likely you’ll fall in love with the world these characters inhabit – the protagonist, Nina Hill, is a booklover who works at a venerable bookshop called Knight’s in the Larchmont neighbourhood of Los Angeles, which is filled to the delightful brim with historic homes, delightful shops and the kind of warm-and-fuzzy neighbourliness that you would think would be utterly alien to a massive urban setting like California’s biggest city.

But it is not, and thankfully Waxman uses it beautifully as a backdrop for a story that is a romantic comedy in one sense but also so much more.

It’s the tale of how Nina, a lone child with loving but largely-absent world-travelling photographer mother, who is bright, literate and has a strong and supportive network of friends and witty, bantering co-workers, finds her cosy world of nights in, much reading and trivia contests at local watering holes – she is fearsomely intelligent and keeps getting banned from said establishments – blown apart, mostly in the very best of ways, when she discovers that she is not so alone, family-wise, as she thought.

After a lifetime of a cosy small “l” life that suits her to a tee, though she knows deep down she may be lonelier than she’s willing to admit publicly or to herself, she is finally forced to grapple with everything that comes with a big, boisterous, rich and sometimes fractious family.

“She’d [Nina] graduated from UCLA with a useless but interesting degree (Art History, thanks for asking) and took the job at Knight’s while she worked out what she wanted to do now that she was grown up. She spent the next few years actually growing up; having short-lived affairs and one slightly longer love affair and then some more shorts ones, and Getting in Shape and Being Vegan and Paleo and then Giving Up And Eating Everything Again. She took up yoga, then Spinning, the a combination of yoga and Spin she inwardly referred to as Spoga, then decoupage and knitting and a series of those evenings where you drink wine and paint, but she had a niggling suspicion she was underperforming in some way. Surely her purpose in life wasn’t simply to read as many books as possible?” (P. 16)

… and then she falls in love.

Well, not exactly; then she meets Tom, the cute captain of the opposing trivia team – in keeping with the vivacious wit of the novel, which is full of grin-inducing asides and hilariously clever observations of life in general and life in L.A. in particular, Nina and Tom’s teams are respectively named Book ‘Em, Danno and You’re a Quizzard, Harry – and thought she tries to resist him and his boyish, handsome charm, she finds herself attracted to him beyond all sane thinking.

Her version of sane thinking, anyway.

If this all sounds like rom-com by the numbers, to a some extent it is since if the trope ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but Waxman goes to such trouble to create memorable, fully-formed characters and to give them lives that make sense and feel palpably real, for all their fairytale-ish sheen, that you happily go along with everything that pops in this remarkably immersive book.

By virtue of some wry acknowledgement that we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to existence’s big moments, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill has a substantial core of truthfulness that elevates it above the usual rom-com fare (which is, as someone attracted to quirky characters finding love and fulfilment, often at once, is no bad thing), creating a spot in your heart where the bells of self-recognition start tolling very early on.

Abbi Waxman (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

After all, who of us hasn’t met someone brilliant or been offered the perfect job or had some existential applecart-setting development makes its unsettling presence felt, and instead of embracing with vim, vigour and a dashing sense of adventure, found ourselves backpedalling back into the status quo as fast as out world-weary feet of clay will take us?

Hands up? Oh right, all of us.

It’s one thing to consider something at a hypothetical distance and quite another to be plunged unceremoniously into the midst of it, which is what happens to Nina, not once but twice in the book as first Tom and then a whole unknown family – she was the happy product of a dalliance by her mother with a rich married man who was allowed no contact with his daughter as part of a pre-birth agreement so Nina had no idea he or his multi-generational family even existed; quite the shock then, and understandably so – and she is thrown, completely and utterly thrown.

The joy of Waxman’s writing, which is infused with a self-aware cheeky wit, is that while the book is ostensibly rom-com-ish, with some delightfully light and frothy elements that proved absolutely worth your time, it has some real life truths lurking down there that are duly given their time of day.

Try parental abandonment. Or poor life choices when it comes to marriage or parenting. Career deadends … or are they? The way we sculpt safe places for ourselves as children when life proves too overwhelming and are loathe, for entirely sensible reasons, to give them up when something good, or great, comes along in adulthood.

“People walked by with the joie de vivre all Angelenos have, at least in that [Larchmont] neighborhood. People were fit, healthy, attractive, and living their dream, or at least trying to live their dream. It was Sunday, and they were busy working up their enthusiasm for the coming week. Each morning they would face possible disappointment (no callbacks, no job interviews, no call from the Academy) but would march themselves to lunchtime yoga and drink a green juice and look forward to the next opportunity to Break In or Go Big or Make It Work. Maybe this week they would meet The One. Los Angeles runs on youthful optimism, endorphins, and Capital Letters.” (P. 235)

For all the happy-ever-afters in the offing, and they are there in the form of love with Tom, new brothers and sisters like Archie and Lydia and fabulous grown gay nephews like Peter (he’s older but William, Nina’ dad, married a LOT over many years) and a new lease of life for the bookshop which is in peril, Nina is scared.

Scared to leave her quiet nights reading at home in her cosy bungalow with its floor-to-ceiling bookcases and Phil the cat. Afraid to step beyond her close trivia friends and well-defined work environment. Unsure of what happens when the stops are taking away and life can go, well, ANYWHERE.

It all feels very relatable real and Waxman winningly and deliciously, in such an appealing way that you honestly want to stay in Larchmont with Nina and her wonderful new network of friends and relatives forever – let there be a sequel, please – makes the most of it, not just in an appealing rom-com kind of way but in a way that makes it feel like it could happen to you.

Admittedly, you might need a few rom-com flourishes to go along with it, but who wouldn’t want that? Especially if it comes with a cute neighbourhood, stellar, witty friends and a job in a bookstore?

A love letter to books and reading as much as a clarion call to not make them your whole world wonderful though they are (or, at least, to be open to people and possibilities from beyond the wonderful world of reading and the people who happily inhabit it), The Bookish Life of Nina Hall is a diversionary, escapist delight with some very real life lessons folded in, giving it substance with the fun, brought to life by a writer who is clever, funny and has the kind of way with words that, were you to end up in a real life rom-com, would make her the perfect candidate for the wise and funny best friend.

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