When I wrote recently about loving Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a couple of blogging friends alerted me to another book which Strout had described as ‘gorgeous’ – Lily King’s Writers and Lovers. I rushed to it immediately and was not disappointed. I am in good company – over 13,000 reviewers on Goodreads have given this book four or five star reviews.
Here’s the blurb:
‘Blindsided by her mother’s sudden death, and wrecked by a recent love affair, Casey Peabody has arrived in Massachusetts in the summer of 1997 without a plan. Her mail consists of wedding invitations and final notices from debt collectors. A former child golf prodigy, she now waits tables in Harvard Square and rents a tiny, moldy room at the side of a garage where she works on the novel she’s been writing for six years. At thirty-one, Casey is still clutching onto something nearly all her old friends have let go of: the determination to live a creative life. When she falls for two very different men at the same time, her world fractures even more. Casey’s fight to fulfill her creative ambitions and balance the conflicting demands of art and life is challenged in ways that push her to the brink.’
If I had read this first, I don’t think I would have picked up the book. This sounds a bit light and frothy to me. Nothing wrong with that at all; it’s just not a style of writing to which I am usually drawn. But luckily, because of the recommendations from trusted sources, I did not even look at the blurb before plunging in.
Right from the start, we experience Casey’s creative agony:
‘I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.’
I can relate to this in a small way. I have found over the years that doing something creative each day, however small – perhaps knitting just one row – is an essential part of good mental wellbeing for me.
Another aspect of Casey’s creative struggle is the need to be alone to write, set against the pull of developing new relationships. She has to wrestle with her inner and outer worlds, trying to achieve some kind of balance or harmony. Neither feel particularly comfortable domains for her. The death of her mother crowds and clouds her thoughts; the challenges and practicalities of trying to make ends meet burden her daily routines.
None of this is helped in any way by the men in her life. She is subject to all kinds of verbal and physical abuse from pretty much all the men in the book: her father; her new lovers; her boss; her colleagues. It’s utterly exhausting for her and the reader. But we are rooting for her and want her to triumph.
The only slight wrinkle for me in the narrative is that Casey is apparently in her early 30s, but she reads much younger to me. I had to keep reminding myself of her age – something which seemed necessary to keep her in the right context for the narrative. But this is a minor detail and in no way detracts from the overall enjoyment of the story.
Let me close with another aspect of this book which totally endeared it to me. Woven through the narrative is a relationship which Casey has with a flock of geese. I find these birds absolutely fascinating and one of my most favourite books (which I have mentioned in previous posts loads of times, sorry!) is The Snow Geese by William Fiennes. So any book which includes geese is on to a good thing from the start in my view. Here’s how Casey feels about them:
‘I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the cast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere spectre, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for.’
This is a beautifully written novel, one to savour and linger over. I also enjoyed all the bookish references and have come away with some titles for my To Be Read list. So a winning read all round, and a big thanks to Ann and Susan for their recommendations.
‘It’s a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone.’