‘How is your novel going?’ A young woman writer’s struggle.

Lily King’s novel plumbs the depths of the creative life, and of being true to one’s calling. 

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic
“Writers & Lovers” by Lily King, Grove Press, 324 pp.

For many, the path to adulthood can be a rocky one. Add in Boston’s prohibitively high rents and a mountain of student debt, and the achievement of independence becomes an impressive accomplishment.

In her novel “Writers & Lovers,” Lily King unwinds an insightful story about a young woman’s heartfelt efforts towards achieving this goal, a journey further complicated in her case by family issues (of course) – but also her chosen career.

Casey is a writer; she has spent the past six years working on her novel. She lives in a rented room attached to a garage and waits tables at a restaurant in Harvard Square. It’s admittedly mundane work, but it allows her the mornings to write. She is also burdened with grief because her mother recently passed away. The two were close and Casey longs for their regular conversations. She’s estranged from her father – with good reason – making the sudden and unexpected loss of her mother even more difficult.

And Casey is not on a traditional life path. She’s 31 years old and has spent the last decade in a series of low-paying jobs and failed relationships. As she sees it, though, “What I have had for the past six years, what has been constant and steady in my life is the novel I’ve been writing.”

To Casey, that achievement means just about everything. Events at each turn test her resolve to keep writing, especially the contrast between her life and the lives of her friends. They send her invitations to their weddings, markers that they have arrived at some mythical stage of “adulthood.” Many of them once called themselves writers, she reflects, but they dropped away and opted for more conventional careers. 

She wonders who is the fool: The one who abandons a cherished dream for a more traditional path – one that includes home ownership – or Casey, who lives in an apartment that’s not much more than a potting shed, where she gets a break on the rent in exchange for walking her landlord’s dog every morning? 

The answer depends on whom you ask. Some of those friends tell her it’s time to grow up, saying, “You can’t live in your made-up worlds all your life.” Her landlord, while asking about her progress on her book, adds, “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.”

Ouch.

But Casey’s commitment to her novel is really a commitment to herself, to an intuitive understanding of her identity beyond the reach of the expectations of others. As each of her supports fails – the jobs, the romances, the cadre of writer friends who should understand – her courage to persevere burnishes a personal strength that is equal to the challenges she encounters.

Much of the success of this story lies with King’s wonderful writing style. Her vivid descriptions make even mundane settings come alive, including the bustle of a competent wait staff during a busy restaurant dinner shift. Even so, some readers might want to pass on this book. The dialogue is often sprinkled with language not generally spoken in polite company. The events include references to medical procedures as well as a disturbing backstory that explains Casey’s estrangement from her father. King avoids details and never sensationalizes, but these events are integral to the plot.

But for readers who dive in – and maybe even share the sentiment of one of Casey’s faithful friends, who tells her that her ideas are weird but adds “I love weird” – this book will offer a full examination of creative life. It places the writer’s life at the center of the story: the politics, the rivalries between writers, the jobs they take just to ensure that they can eat, and especially how male writers are taken more seriously than their female peers. King shares these insights with a fresh perspective and an authenticity that suggests she draws upon personal experience.

More broadly, though, the book explores familiar themes, including a drawn-out youth, an obscure path to personal goals, and a protagonist who stands at the precipice that divides youth from maturity and asks if health insurance really is a qualification for adulthood. 

King looks at fear and how it clips our wings – but only if we let it.

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