Lily King’s Writers & Lovers Is a Must-Read for All

Lily King’s Writers & Lovers scored a place in many “Best Books of 2020” lists, and deservedly so. It’s funny and witty and real and poignant in ways that will hit home with anyone who picks it up. And it will give you much to think about when you put it down.

The narrator of this multilayered, late coming-of-age novel is Casey Peabody, a 31-year-old writer and waitress struggling with college debt, failed relationships, grief at her mother’s sudden death, and longing for a better future. She’s kind and friendly, has an eye for exacting detail, and a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. In short, an irresistible and endearing narrator.

Her opening lines set the tone and theme: “I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex.”

Sex and money are hardly original problems or themes, and that’s part of the genius. There is nothing exotic or unusual in the plot of King’s gem; it’s the telling of the story that is so remarkable.

Casey lives a few miles from Harvard Square, in one room over a garage that a friend of her brother’s is renting for a pittance. Her fellow MFA classmates have all given up on writing, preferring jobs with pay and security. But Casey longs to write, and for six years she has labored over her novel, putting up with a lousy job and a solitary, rather barren existence in  hopes of getting it finished.

But Casey can’t give up her writing. At one point, her skeptical landlord scoffs, “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.” Casey has no immediate comeback, but later she admits, “I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.”

To support herself, she works in a busy upscale restaurant, and I have to confess that the restaurant scenes were my favorite part of the book. Casey describes the ensemble cast of fellow workers and oddball customers with the kind of inside wit and spirit that could only come from personal experience. (King acknowledged the autobiographical elements of the novel in an interview with Grubstreet.)

The novel is particularly valuable for its literary insights, for writers and readers alike. I was struck especially by these comments that Casey delivers when interviewing for a teaching job:

“I want kids to talk and write about how the book makes them feel, what it reminded them of, if it changed their thoughts about anything.…What did this make you think about?  I think you could get some really original ideas that way, not the old regurgitated ones like man versus nature. Just shoot me if I ever assign anyone an essay about man versus nature. Questions like that are designed to pull you completely out of the story. Why would you want to pull kids out of the story? You want to push them further in, so they can feel everything the author tried so hard to create for them.”

The lovers in the title include a flawed father and a series of here-then-gone boyfriends of her past, as well as two very different men she meets after the novel begins.

Oscar is older, an acclaimed novelist with two young sons—make that two charming, adorable, funny sons—while Silas is a struggling writer, close to Casey’s age and suffering with similar career aspirations. Oscar is a comfortable companion and his boys provide the kind of home life Casey never had, while Silas provides the kind of excitement and physical chemistry Casey can’t resist.

In a way, the two lovers together give Casey everything she needs. But of course, she feels bound to choose between them. And therein lies the rub!

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Mark Willen