Set in Boston in 1997, Lily King’s new novel, “Writers & Lovers,” opens onto a scene of sorrows.
The 31-year-old narrator, Casey Peabody, an aspiring writer, has recently been dumped by her longtime boyfriend. Her mother has died suddenly on a vacation, and she detests her father. She has writer’s block, health anxieties, a mountain of college debt, and an unsettling feeling that there is someone else living inside of her whom she is unacquainted with. She waits tables in a hostile work environment and lives in a potting shed. All this before the problematical lovers of the title have even entered the scene.
Yet if King has dropped her protagonist deep in a forest of misery with no discernible path out, she has also given Casey a compelling voice and a perceptive mind. She is at the same time idealistic and hardheaded. Early in the novel, Casey thinks about her circle of writer friends who chucked the uncertainty of writing to become Realtors, attorneys, comfortable spouses: “People playing roles, getting further and further away from themselves.” Even though she is unable to write her novel, a work centering on her mother’s time as a child in Cuba, it never leaves her mind.
Much of the turn of “Writers & Lovers” concerns the two men who appear in Casey’s life, both grieving writers with troubling personalities. It’s worth mentioning that the community of writers who people the coffee shops and bookstores of this novel seem a pretty narcissistic bunch. But the conversations that Casey has with them are terrific — King’s gift is to suspend the reader, to make the wait for resolution fascinating.
Ultimately it is neither the writers nor the lovers who enable Casey to find her way out of the forest (though perhaps King was wise not to have added “Friends and Mentors” to the title — klunk!). After nearly crushing Casey with burdens, King creates a set of characters who can lighten them: a waiter at the restaurant; a fellow (unpublished) novelist; her brother; a literary agent.
Readers of King’s 2014 novel, “Euphoria,” who are hoping for an even more remarkable novel in “Writers & Lovers” may be disappointed. There is nothing comparable to the brilliance of Nell Stone, a Margaret Meade stand-in in the earlier work, and the excitements of “Writers & Lovers” are on a smaller scale, though equally well written. Most impressive are the sections that outline Casey’s struggle to write and publish her book:
“The hardest thing about writing is getting in every day, breaking through the membrane. The second-hardest thing is getting out. Sometimes I sink down too deep and come up too fast. Afterward I feel wide open and skinless. The whole world feels moist and pliable. When I get up from the desk I straighten the edges of everything.”
Tom Zelman is a professor emeritus of English at the College of St. Scholastica and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Writers & Lovers
By: Lily King.
Publisher: Grove Press, 324 pages, $27.
Event: Wordplay festival, May 9, Loft Literary Center, 1011 S. Washington Av., Mpls.