Book Review: Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Every so often, a book comes along that maybe appears just to be a fun read; something easy to escape in that passes the time. Yet by the end you realize this book has mended a crack in your heart that you didn’t even know was there. For me, this was Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers.
Synopsis from the book cover: “Blindsided by her mother’s sudden death, and wrecked by a recent love affair, Casey Peabody has arrived in Cambridge, 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 ambitions and balance the conflicting demands of art and life is challenged in ways that push her to the brink. Writers & Lovers follows Casey in the last days of a long youth, a time when every element of her life comes to a crisis. Written with King’s trademark humor, heart, and intelligence, Writers & Lovers is a transfixing novel that explores the artistic passion, ambition, and the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another.”
With a relaxed pace and a loosely structured flow from section to section, this book was calming to read and conversational enough that I found myself succumbing to page after page after page, finishing it in about three days. Casey, the protagonist, is immensely relatable in her struggle to straddle a pragmatic approach to life, and a life guided by nothing but her own artistic compass. As a writer, and a woman, I felt this familiar pain deeply.
Since moving to California, my entire career and life trajectory has changed, and not just because of living in a new state, but also because I became pregnant right before moving down. A common dilemma for modern women: trying to enmesh career and family. The majority of my career has been in nonprofit administration and let me tell you, I was damn good at it. However, while I was building up this career in my early twenties, all the while there was an unavoidable nudging coming from the back of my mind telling me that I needed to just admit to myself that I wanted something different – something expansive and freeing. I always knew this to be writing, and was always too afraid to admit it to myself, much less anyone else. Admitting that I wanted to write also meant admitting that I was scared shitless of writing, and dealing with the judgement that could come with leaving a “real” job for what many would consider a pipedream. I couldn’t even call myself a writer without wincing until…actually that’s still a problem for me. Admitting that I wanted something different than what I had meant entirely unlearning and redefining who I am and who I want to be.
Casey’s struggle with this was so personal for me that at times it felt like I was reading about my own mental breakdown. How does one keep moving, keep writing, keep trying, when your belief and knowing of who you are and what you have to say is wholly missing? For Casey, part of it meant discovering herself within lovers; each teaching her something different and crucial about who she is. Congruently it meant navigating the world without her mother and coming to the point of breaking in order to build back stronger. It’s this that, above all, has tied my heart to this book. Much in the way that Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar exposes the process of breaking in order to rebuild, Casey’s journey of slow crumbling to a near plummet shatters all of her lingering expectations of herself and who she was “supposed” to be. She crashes hard enough to finally release the woman that no longer exists. It allows her to accept the mandatory space for new expectations and ideas about what it means to be who she is and create the life that she longs for.
It was everything that I, a 27-year-old soon-to-be-mom and aspiring writer, desperately needed to ingest. I gobbled Casey’s journey up and regurgitated my own expectations of myself and self-imposed pressure; and sure enough I started believing in my voice again. Words started to find their way out again.
This book reminded me of the criticality of storytelling. When I started reading this, I was looking for an escape from the sludge of worthlessness that I had cemented as a cornerstone of my psyche. I wasn’t really able to conceive of a way past it, reinforcing my stuck-ness to myself over and over and over again. I couldn’t see, or even imagine, the other side – which meant there was no other side. This book showed me how wrong I was. Yes, this is a work of fiction. But this is the splendor of storytelling: I was shown a world where I too, could be shattering. But instead of staying shattered, I saw a possible mending. I saw who I could be if I surrendered to the kind of life that can only come from shattering and rebuilding. I saw who I could be if I didn’t give up on writing. I saw who I could be as a mother. I saw, for the first time in a very long time, the other side. That there are ways to get there. It may mean the destruction of everything I’ve ever known and thought I wanted. But it’s there, for the taking.
Writers & Lovers helped me live my life again. If you are going through your own transformation, even if you aren’t, give this book a read. At the very least, it’ll be a quick and refreshing read. At the most, it could press the reset button you have been searching everywhere for.