Writers & Lovers by Lily King

(This was meant to be one entry in a roundup of mini-reviews, but I found that I had far too much to say about it. On Sunday I’ll feature three more May releases I’ve read.)

1997. Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. At 31, she lives in a tiny studio apartment off of her brother’s friend’s house and cycles everywhere. Between shifts waitressing at Iris, a trendy restaurant above a Harvard social club, she chips away at the Cuba-set novel she’s been writing for six years.

Through her writer friend Muriel she meets two love interests at a book launch for Oscar Kolton, a former Boston University professor and novelist who’s been leading a fiction workshop since his wife’s death a few years ago. One is the fortysomething Oscar himself; the other, who initially seems more promising, is Silas, a would-be writer from the workshop. But before they have a chance to see if this will go somewhere, Silas is off. He leaves Casey a voicemail saying he needs to get away for a while. Oh well; just another flake, she thinks.

After he and his adorable young sons come in to the restaurant for brunch one day, her interest is squarely in Oscar. Or, that is, until Silas comes back and she finds herself dating two men at the same time. A museum trip with Silas here, a dinner out with Oscar there. As if her love life isn’t complication enough, before long she finds herself looking for a new job, a place to live, a literary agent, and reassurance that she’ll be okay when she takes advantage of her short-lived health insurance to get some minor medical issues checked out.

I almost passed on reading this one because I’d gotten it in my head that it was nothing more than a romantic comedy with a love triangle. I’m so glad that Kate’s review convinced me to give it a try after all. On the face of it this could hardly be more different from King’s previous novel, Euphoria, about anthropologists doing field work in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, but King’s attention to the intricacies of human relationships links the two. When I read Euphoria in late 2014, I noted the natives’ practice of cutting off a finger for every close relative lost. Here you also get the sense that everyone has lost someone, and that these losses are as visible as physical traits. Casey is only on her second conversation with Silas when she thinks, “I can tell he lost someone close somehow. You can feel that in people, an openness, or maybe it’s an opening that you’re talking into. With other people, people who haven’t been through something like that, you feel the solid wall. Your words go scattershot off of it.”

There are so many things to love about this novel, including the wonderful/terrible scenes where she rattles off her mother’s story to two doctors and her awful father and stepmother show up for lunch. Count the rest: The Boston-area setting, the restaurant bustle, that feeling we’ve all had of wasting our talents while stuck in the wrong job and the wrong living situation. Casey’s confiding first-person, present-tense narration, the little observations on writers (when John Updike comes into the restaurant she touches his loafer for luck; she nearly swoons when Jayne Anne Phillips is at one of her tables—“Black Tickets is like a prayer book to me”; she thinks she’s blown a high school English teacher interview when she states a dislike for Cormac McCarthy—“he seemed to be alternating between imitating Hemingway and imitating Faulkner”), and even the choice between Silas and Oscar (“Fireworks or coffee in bed”). She doesn’t make the ‘right’ choice I was expecting, but if you’ve been following the clues closely you’ll realize it’s the only one she could have made.

What I loved most, though, was that we see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. “There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.” I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her as I did for Ana in Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Those who have tried writing a book will probably get even more out of this than I did, but it will resonate for anyone who’s ever felt lost and uncertain about life’s direction. “Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation?” Casey hears at a writing festival.

Think of this as an older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say.

A real standout and one of my few early favorites from 2020.

My rating:


With thanks to Picador for the unsolicited copy for review.

29 responses

  1. This sounds good! I’ve seen copies of Euphoria in charity shops but never been quite tempted enough to buy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Euphoria was really good — reminiscent of State of Wonder, which I know you love.

      I found that I loved the late-1990s setting of this one. Technology not being a part of everyday life was a really refreshing element!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I thought it sounded a little like Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, which I also loved. I’m also drawn to the 1990s setting of Writers and Lovers!

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    2. The Berlinski sounds fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. WELL, this sounds great and I am ever more furious that my proof copy is locked in the shop, inaccessible!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I think this one is perfect for you. You’ll love all the little references to Casey’s writing routines and thoughts about books. That sucks that you can’t get to your copy … can you get in on 15th June?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We’re going to try to put some staff members in the shop, but I’m unlikely to be part of the first wave – Type I diabetes, medically at risk, etc. Though I’m wondering how insane it would be to do a taxi run into town, just to grab proofs…

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    2. I love it: grab the books and go! I would totally do that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My review for this comes out tomorrow and I loved every bit as much as you did. It’s not my normal sort of readings at all but a friend recommended it and I am so glad that I have found Lily King as a writer; I shall certainly be looking for her other books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wonderful! I so nearly skipped this one (an unsolicited proof) because based on the cover and blurb it just looked like a romantic comedy. I should have known from Euphoria that Lily King was never going to write something so simple. I don’t know anything about her other work, but I’ll be looking into it too.

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  4. I like pre-technology settings. Characters have to make more of an effort to interact. This sounds rather wonderful, I think I’d enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They mostly communicate by telephone and voicemail! So quaint.

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  5. Ahhh, I’d love to read this one. Also, the cover put you off? I adore the concept of the figures having been cut from the bindings. I’ve not read Lily King, and I’m starting to believe that I’ve been missing out for a long while (not just recently).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A combination of the title, cover and blurb — it seemed lightweight. Luckily, I was wrong!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. P.S. The proof copy was plain yellow with just the three cutouts on it, and a less typewriter-y font.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You have me re-thinking this one now. I was going to skip it. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so pleased to hear that!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Even your review didn’t really tempt me, but seeing all these positive comments, and yours of course ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peer pressure! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] a delightful escape from our current troubles. If you need any more persuasion, both Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Ann at Café Society loved it, […]

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  9. So glad you enjoyed it! (would have hated to give a bad recommendation). I wondered if the cover and marketing (the Australian cover is not much better) put it into the ‘women’s fiction/ chick-lit’ category – I hope not! So many readers will dismiss it if that’s the case. I reckon it will be in my favourites for the year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely got a chick lit vibe from the cover and blurb, so I’m glad your review set me straight! It’s my #2 novel of the year thus far.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I loved Euphoria. And, although this sounds very different, it still has a love triangle. Have you read any of her other books?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, those are the only two of her books that I’ve read. And you’re right, they share the love triangle element, but there’s nothing cliched about how she creates that. The other book of hers that I’ve heard of and am most interested in is Father of the Rain.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Well, this is the second glowing review of this I’ve seen today so I had better get on the waiting list for this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it appeals!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] averaging four new releases per month: a nicely manageable number. In addition to Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in May I’ve read a novel about eco-anxiety and marital conflict, a memoir of losing a mother to […]

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  13. […] Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (my upcoming Doorstopper of the […]

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  14. […] Writers & Lovers by Lily King: Following a breakup and her mother’s sudden death, Casey Peabody is drowning in grief and debt. Between waitressing shifts, she chips away at the novel she’s been writing for six years. Life gets complicated, especially when two love interests appear. We see this character at rock bottom but also when things start to go well at long last. I felt I knew Casey through and through, and I cheered for her. An older, sadder Sweetbitter, perhaps as written by Elizabeth Strout. It gives you all the feels, as they say. […]

    Like

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