Give me a book that prioritizes something other than some tired old romance or marriage plot. Don’t you dare recommend a novel that ends with a wedding. Show me a protagonist who has her own passions, her own life, who is not defined by her quest for The One.
I thought I may have found just such a novel when I read this about Lily King’s Writers & Lovers:
“For a while, our heroine appears to be on her way to putting her writing ambitions on hold to create room for those of one of two men she begins dating. Instead, though, she stays with her craft.”
(Warning: If you keep reading, you will not find any outright spoilers, but there will be some hints about what unfolds.)
When I’m trying to find books to read for fun, I read just enough about them to get a sense of whether I might like them. I always want to form my own opinion. So those two sentences I quoted were about all that I knew about Writers & Lovers before I read it.
Casey, the 31-year-old protagonist, does indeed have writing ambitions, and she works on her novel relentlessly – or tries to – throughout the story. She has spent six years on it, most recently in a smelly room she has rented next to her landlord’s garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She keeps at it, even as she is drowning in grief over her mother’s death, buried by debts, suffering from unsettling maladies she can’t afford to get checked out right away (unreliable health insurance, not much time off from work).
As a child, she was a golf prodigy, but that’s in the past. In her adult life, she pursues the path of the aspiring writer. She attends one of those prestigious writing retreats, where writers get their own cabins and convene with the others mostly only for dinner. She doesn’t get much writing done there.
To get a break on the rent for her moldy room, she walks her landlord’s dog. For income, she rides her bike to a restaurant where she waits tables. That leaves little time for her obsession, her novel, but still she persists. Yes, there are those two men, Oscar and Silas, and one more before them from the writer’s retreat; but always, the pages of Casey’s novel are there before her, even if she is just staring at them. All her friends from the heady retreat have beaten their own retreat, into marriage and real estate and other far more remunerative professions than writing. But not Casey.
I love that about her. I love her love of writing, her vulnerability and wit and endurance as she is overlooked and underestimated for what she cares about most, her writing. I relish the way she skewers the trappings and the posturings of the culture of writers, with the retreats and writing programs and book parties and readings – even as she is drawn to them, too.
I thought Writers & Lovers started out slowly. I even put it down for a few days. But once I picked it up again, that was it. I was smitten even though that two-sentence preview was misleading in a disappointing way. Casey never sets aside the men.
Once I’ve read a book, I inhale the reviews of it. I want to know what touched other people, what escaped me. I guess it is like book club, except the other people all read the book, thought about it, probably reread it, and wrote careful reviews of it.
The last review I read was an essay in the New York Times “Group Text” series, “a monthly column about novels, memoirs and story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and linger for a while in another world.” It ended with a list of discussion questions. The last one was “Oscar or Silas?”
I had my fill of reviews and walked away contentedly sated. Until an hour or so later, when I was working on something else, and I yelled out to my empty home, “Oscar or Silas? Oscar or Silas!”
Why does she have to choose one of those men? (I think they are both trouble, but that’s really not my beat.) Why does she have to choose any man? Her writing is the center of her life. Why won’t the Times reviewer offer her (and the participants in Group Text) the option of boys on the side, or no men at all?
This, dear fellow single-at-heart types, is just one example of why it is so hard to get taken seriously as someone who chooses single life.