Book review: Writers & Lovers by Lily King

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

It’s not until all consuming grief hits you that you realise how tenuous your grip on the world around you is and how easily it can shaken.

Throw in any additional kind of emotional destabilisation such as moving, a stressful job or a break-up and suddenly what seemed certain, stable and knowable becomes anything but.

In Lily King’s luminously poignant novel, Writers & Lovers, Casey is struggling with exactly this kind of existential dislocation as she grapples with the recent loss of her mother and being dumped by Luke, a poet she met at a writer’s retreat who seems all kinds of wonderful until he quite suddenly isn’t.

Returning home to Massachusetts, and specifically Boston, she lands a waitressing job at the Iris, finds a ex-potting shed to rent from her brother Caleb’s friend Adam, and attempts to put her quite broken life back together.

It is not even remotely where she saw herself being at 31, either geographically, emotionally or career-wise, weighed down by college debt, mired in a novel she loves writing but which she can’t seem to progress to save herself (but which is her one remaining link to her mother) and unable to forge any kind of meaningful way forward.

“I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.” (P. 3)

Distinguishing up from down and down from up becomes even harder when she meets Oscar, a widower dad with two young sons at the restaurant where she works, who is instantly smitten with her, not that long after meeting writer and teacher Silas, who first appears more than a little flaky, at a book launch where the author is … Oscar.

Confusing much? It is, and while this might seem the stuff of high, sudsy melodrama, King crafts a beguilingly grounded story of one woman’s search for a way out from under grief and trenchant loneliness and a sense of lostness so profound she isn’t sure she can’t find her way home (wherever that is right now or of it even exists anymore).

Emotionally resonant in a way that anyone who has ever gone through debilitating grief will find speaks to them deeply, Writers & Lovers feels so authentic in its distillation of the lingering, unsettling aftereffects of pain and loss that you feel as if you can reach and touch the world that King insightfully distills.

The great strength of this highly-readable novel is that it remains nuanced and thoughtful throughout with events unfurling at the kind of pace that feel natural and down-to-earth and which never feels as if it is going for easy answers.

The reality is that there are no easy answers in life, and while other novels would see the arrival of two seemingly available men, neither of whom are quite what they appear in ways that only add to the truthfulness of the narrative, as a quick fix to a terrible situation, King doesn’t come close to playing it that way and the novel, and we as readers, are all the richer for it.

Lily King (cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

There is no fairytale ending on offer largely because life doesn’t offer those kinds of endings much, if at all.

That’s not to say that Casey doesn’t find resolution or a sense of hopeful momentum, because she very much does, but her progression from lost or found enough feels very much like the kind of journey many of us have taken and are still taking.

Death aside, life is fiendishly short of clearcut answers or neat, walled-off finish lines and as Casey sorts her way through possible romantic possibilities, she comes to understand she might never find an easy way out of her current situation.

Finding some solace in her nighttime rides back from work, past the geese on the river and a Boston that is seemingly alive with possibility for everyone but her, Casey’s life is a case of one step forward, quite a few back.

Again, very true to life and when things like the novel begin to go somewhere, it’s thanks to a great deal of hard work and perseverance on her part and that is close friend Muriel, and not because the narrative fairy waved some sort of magic fixes-everything wand.

Thank god for that too; if Casey had been saved by men or the perfect job out of nowhere or any of a thousand other narrative contrivances, it would have been very easy to feel somewhat cheated.

“When I get back, the room still smells of printing and I have my first wave of fear about it being read. Silas is coming in twenty minutes, so I don’t have time to wallow in it. I jump in the shower and when I get out my nose is still red from the chilly ride to Cambridge. I put on too much blush to compensate and find a clean shirt I’m pretty sure I didn’t wear to the party where I met Silas. Oscar’s party. But he wasn’t Oscar then. He was the author signing books I couldn’t afford in the other room.” (P. 147)

But King never yields to that kind of easy way out at any point in Writers & Lovers, cleverly holding up an obvious escape route, the kind that lazier wriers would seize upon in an instant and doing some quite extraordinary, and in an otherwise quite serious novel, humourous things with them.

What you need to keep in mind with this wonderfully affecting novel, written with incisive insight and real heartfelt empathy, is that it defies expectations at every turn in the best of all possible ways, delivering up a story that, like life itself, isn’t as predictable as you might think or as the back cover blurb suggests.

That is, when you think about it, the best kind of read.

Picking up a novel like Writers & Lovers, you imagine it will play out one way; when it doesn’t, and you end up with a far richer, layered and more emotionally resonant and grounded read, than expected, it is almost a thrill.

Helping this sense of an immersively rewarding read is the fact that Casey is so very flawed and lovably human; she doesn’t have all the answers and she struggles to pull away from the heavy hand of grief, like all of us, and while she is gifted as a writer, smart and wanting the best from life, that doesn’t mean that’s always what she gets.

Life is crazily contradictory, despite our best efforts and pureness of heart and intent, and that is all present and accounted for in Writers & Lovers which feels gorgeously and enrapturingly true to life in a gritty and broken but ultimately redemptive ways, and which gives us in Casey the best kind of protagonist, someone who wants the best, doesn’t always get it but arrives somewhere that may be the exact right place for her if only she can harness her emerging bravery for risk and the unknown and seize it with two very deserving hands.

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