WRITERS AND LOVERS by Lily King (Grove Press, 320 pp., $27)
My guess is that any writer, particularly any female writer who picks up Lily King’s "Writers & Lovers," will find some measure of herself reflected in its pages.
The story follows Casey Peabody, who is 31 and has been working on her first novel for six years. She is almost the only one of her writer friends still struggling to master the craft — or at least finish her book. In the meantime, the others have gone to law school, gotten married, had children. They’ve given up on the Big Dream and settled into “normal” life.
“Russell was a poet … he was the first to surrender and go to law school. He’s a tax attorney in Tampa now.”
But Casey hasn’t weakened. Working as a waitress in a high-end restaurant in Boston, weighed down by a mountain of school debt and missing her mother who has died unexpectedly, Casey soldiers on, so determined to live on her own terms that she seems to have no choice.
Loving well and writing well are interdependent in this novel, which is often the opposite of truth in real life, and yet it makes for a fully satisfying, emotionally weighted trip. Casey, in the course of her writing life, meets a moody and complicated man who has embarked on his first writing workshop. And in the course of her working life at the restaurant, she meets a famous and successful widowed novelist with two small children. She begins dating both. Will Casey finish her novel? Will she fall in love? And how do these two ambitions simultaneously undermine and support each other? That is the subject of this dear and satisfying novel, the fifth by the critically acclaimed King.
Subtly threaded throughout this novel is an awareness of the way men’s relationships with one another and with women are so different. When Casey reports that one of the cooks has been harassing (“he blocked my way. He touched my hair and breathed all over me”), her manager’s response is that the cook is only teasing. Later she hears the cook and the manager laughing about her.
But the worst thing is the way this initial confrontation transmutes later in the book, an evolution from “teasing” to real-life consequences that will be familiar to any woman who works — and to most who don’t. King mirrors this with the way Casey’s famous writer boyfriend tells others that she won’t let him read her work, when actually he has expressed no interest. Later on, when they run into one of his grad school friends and he expresses jealousy of the woman’s success, two things become obvious: No matter what one achieves, there’s always someone with more, and that some men just don’t wish women to compete with them.
There is something so heartening about Casey, about her commitment to her art and her integrity in life. There’s also something so familiar about the elements that get in her way: the family members unable to believe in her future, the boyfriends who almost see her for who she is but ultimately are trapped by their own visions of what women should do with their lives.
This is not a large novel: woman yearns for artistic satisfaction, becomes enmeshed with two men, ultimately makes a choice on her own terms and — is it possible? — ends up better off than she began. But it is the kind of novel that inspires us to tread more sturdily toward our own dreams. It is the kind of novel that gives us hope.