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Writers & Lovers: Tender story of love and loss

Book review: Lily King’s latest book is about grief and the tenacity to persist in the pursuit of an artistic vision

Writers & Lovers
Author: Lily King
ISBN-13: 978-1529033106
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

In Lily King’s portrait of the artist as a young woman, Casey is a 31-year-old aspiring author living in late-1990s Massachusetts. She waits tables at an upscale restaurant to pay the bills, which include payments on a crippling $73,000 of debt. “I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning,” the book opens. “I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex.”

Money isn’t the only thing Casey has to push out of her mind to work on her manuscript. She is grieving her mother, who died suddenly while on holiday with friends. She is also tending to a broken heart after the end of an affair with a poet she met at an artists’ residency shortly after her mother’s death: “In the morning I ache for my mother. But late at night it is Luke I mourn for.”

We watch as Casey engages with two new suitors: Oscar, a 47-year-old novelist with two young sons, and Silas, a fellow literary aspirant her age. Each man is mourning a loss of his own – Luke has lost a child, Oscar is a widower, and Silas is grieving his sister.

I write because if I don't, everything feels even worse

Absence is a pervasive theme in King’s work: her four previous novels – The Pleasing Hour (1997), The English Teacher (2005), Father of the Rain (2010) and Euphoria (2014) – also feature protagonists with a missing parent.

Casey is estranged from her father, a former maths teacher and coach whom she caught peeping into the girls’ locker room during her senior year of high school. Having coached Casey in golf since she was a toddler, he had pushed her to compete to fulfil his own dream of playing professionally. She gives up the sport when they fall out, compounding her debt as it triggers the loss of her scholarship.

Like all artists, Casey faces self-doubt (I am wasting my life “pounds like a heartbeat”) and the disdain of others (“how’s the novel?” sneers her landlord). But she finds solace in the work: “I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.”

Writers & Lovers is not quite a coming-of-age novel: Casey has had life experiences, including living abroad. It’s more about the tenacity to persist in the pursuit of an artistic vision, even if it may seem to some like the less adult choice. In the six years in which she has been working on her novel, most of Casey’s cohort has either “settled down” or “sold out” to more certain career paths (tax law or real estate).

The precariousness of Casey’s finances is brought further into focus when she has a health scare and loses her waitressing job. While the love triangle plays out and Casey seeks new employment, the golden ring is not a husband but health insurance. “Marriage is the polar opposite of a fairy tale,” Casey’s mother had warned her when Princess Diana got married at 19.

Please like me. Even though I'm an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person

Casey calls out friends for being financially dependent on parents or partners, and refers to weddings as a “hollow, misogynistic ritual that will only end in misery”. While we root for Casey’s success in all areas of her life, just as Austen valued sense over sensibility, King definitively places writers before lovers.

With Writers & Lovers, King returns to near-history after her foray into historical fiction with her bestseller Euphoria, a fictionalised account of the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s love triangle with her second and third husbands in Papua New Guinea in the early 1930s. New Guinea offered a universe of natterjack toads, swallowtail butterflies and great-crested newts, and here King turns the same attentive eye to late 20th-century New England.

She paints a precise portrait of the dynamics of working in a restaurant as well as the world inhabited by Oscar’s children. She gently lampoons the literary scene, including the different ways in which men and women are treated. Casey observes an award-winning short-story writer looking pained by compliments and concludes that “success rests more easily on men”.

Examining author photos in a bookstore, she points out that while the men look menacing, women have to appear pleasing: “Please like me. Even though I’m an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person.”

Infused with tenderness and wry wit in equal measure, Writers & Lovers is King’s best book yet. She has said that it was written in response to grief at the unexpected loss of her mother. “There are so many books about men becoming writers,” King told Publisher’s Weekly. “I wanted to write one about women becoming writers. I needed this when I was starting – the encouragement to stay with the dream.”

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