“A novel is a long story with something wrong with it.”
That’s what Casey Peabody’s close friend Muriel muses (paraphrasing the writer Randall Jarrell) to her one day while the two young women ruminate over the novels they’re writing. It’s the late 90s in Boston. Casey is a writer in her thirties struggling to finish a book she’s been toiling over for years in stolen hours at dawn in her moldy garage apartment. Each day Casey rises early to work and then rides her bike to the restaurant Iris, where she makes money as a waitress in Harvard Square.
In “Writers & Lovers”, Lily King deftly crafts a young woman aching to reach a personal Nirvana: self-sufficiency (she is buried by student loan and credit card debt), creative fulfillment and purpose (many of Casey’s friends have quit writing in search of lucrative jobs and stable relationships. She laments the years she’s spent on this book “I am wasting my life”), and to stay healthy (once she finally gets health insurance she attends doctor’s appointments to find out she might have cancer). These stressors are compounded by supreme grief that Casey struggles to navigate. Her mother has died and she is estranged from her father. She is prone to crying and emotional distress, often knocked sideways by the reverberations of her past that bubble up from inside her in the life she tries to get through each day.
Then there are the lovers. There’s Paco, a distant former boyfriend from when she lived abroad. There’s Luke, a poet she meets at a writing retreat early in the novel who is emotionally derailed by the loss of his young child. And then there are the two that come into the frame for the bulk of the novel: Silas and Oscar. Like Casey, Silas is a young writer struggling to create while dealing with the pressures of the day-to-day. King paints the progression of Casey’s character development by how she conflates her writer’s block with the lovers she chooses. Consumed with shame around her unfinished novel, she puts up a guard early when Silas asks her out: “But I can’t go out with a guy who’s written eleven and a half pages in three years. That kind of thing is contagious.”
Oscar is different. An accomplished writer over a decade older than Casey, he has two young sons and more grief to spread around in King’s universe. Their family is still recovering from the death of their mother. Death permeates the book, it looms above every character’s outline, and King skillfully colors each of them in a different hue, offering Casey different case studies in how to move on while holding onto the memory of someone.
The way King writes the attractions between Casey and her lovers mimics the frustrations the character is feeling about her own writing difficulties. When she tries to explain her mother’s death to Oscar, she freezes: “I try to think of how to describe it to him, but nothing comes out.” There are moments of personal triumph — like the time she notices details that might please the poet Luke, but she doesn’t want to give it away: “There’s a dead spider whose legs look woven into the wool. He would like that. It would probably end up in a poem. I take pleasure in not showing it to him.”
In Casey, King has created a woman on the cusp of personal fulfillment and strong enough to stand on her own, someone akin to Sally Rooney’s Frances in “Conversations with Friends” — both writers home in meticulously on female personal development mediated by capitalism, art, sexual relationships vs. romance, and friendship. But King also situates Casey inside a variation of the which-lover-will-she-choose framework of, say, Nancy Meyers’s film “Something’s Gotta Give.”
The book’s most profound moment comes near the end. After getting some bad news about her health and losing her job at the restaurant Casey needs to make a change. She finally gets a new job at a high school teaching English. There’s an assembly in front of students and as the new hire, Casey is invited to speak at it. It’s here where King deploys the soliloquy we’ve been looking for throughout the novel; King has brought her main character full circle. “If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world. Fear holds us back every step of the way … Which is funny because aren’t we just improvising all day long? Isn’t our whole life just one long improvisation? What are we so scared of?”
King’s novel is a defense of writing, sure; her character finds her voice in the end and brings her novel to completion, and finally sells it. But King aims for something higher than that. The novel is a meditation on trying itself: to stay alive, to love, to care. That point feels so fresh, so powerfully diametrically opposed to the readily available cynicism we’ve been feasting on. That line has a depth to it that bears repeating: “A novel is a long story with something wrong with it.” The same can be said about life — that chessboard of missteps and hurdles daring us to be strategic but flirting with us to be reckless. King wants us to keep trying, through whatever means necessary, to beat the odds.
WRITERS & LOVERS
By Lily King
Grove, 336 pages, $27
Amy Pedulla is a writer and the senior audio producer at the Boston Globe where she produces and develops new podcasts.