“Living . . . is not made up of details, but rather of highlights.”
It is the details, however, that haunt 38-year-old Kitty Miller, protagonist of Cynthia Swanson’s The Bookseller. It is 1962, and Kitty is worried: worried about the state of her relationship with her life-long best friend and business partner, worried about their struggling business, and worrying about the state of her own personal life. Having never married, she lives a quiet life with her cat, relishing time spent with her aging parents.
In her dreams, though, she’s Katharyn Andersson, six months older, married well, and a mother of triplets. The dreams are powerful and realistic, and she finds herself falling deep into a fantasy world of what could have been had she met and married the man of her dreams.
It seems tragic, then, when the fabric of that perfect life begins to show holes, places of imperfection. Suddenly, Kitty no longer relishes being Katharyn, and her desire is to excise that alternate reality from her mind.
Swanson is, at first glance, cutting no new narrative path with The Bookseller; readers might be reminded of the movies It’s a Wonderful Life, Sliding Doors, and The Family Man. It’s only as the novel progresses that the realities of Kitty/Katharyn’s life and mind are revealed. Her problems are more complex than choosing between two mutually satisfying lives, and the effect her choice will have is carries more weight than the reader is initially led to expect.
Kitty/Katharyn is a difficult character to like. She is loving . . . when it’s easy. She is impatient much of the time. She drinks too much and expects more than most people would be willing to give. She is not a very nice woman, but Swanson does a bang up job of making it impossible to dislike Katharyn too intensely; however dislikable, she is relatable; this shows remarkable skill in characterization on the part of the author.
Katharyn’s husband, Lars, is lacking that factor. He is pretty much perfect as husband, father, employer, son-in-law, brother—so perfect in fact, that he is unbelievable. By not having him experience any negative emotion, Swanson missed out on a chance to present Kitty/Katharyn with choice between worlds that would have greater depth. As is, he’s a standard two-dimensional romance hunk, lost in a decidedly non-romance novel.
To say much more about the plot would be to spoil; Swanson has created a complex storyline, one in which each step the dual characters of Kitty and Katharyn takes is intrinsic to the next step each takes. The author does a neat job of creating tension as the interludes of dream/not dream get closer and more fraught with emotional baggage; eventually, which life is dream and which is real becomes a real question.
The denouement is meant to shock, and though it perhaps doesn’t quite reach that apex, it isn’t telegraphed so early that it is a yawn. It is, however, a satisfying ending in which enough loose ends are tied up that the few purposely left dangling are in themselves gratifying.
Aside from Perfect Lars, there are just a few dissatisfying tics in Ms. Swanson’s novel. The first quarter of the book is fraught with over description of clothes and furnishings; though clearly meant to evoke the specific time period in which the story is set, what it actually does is slow down the narrative enough that the least hardy readers might be tempted to put the book down, which would be a mistake.
The children speak unnaturally, even for a more formal era, but they aren’t on stage enough for that to take too much away from the story. Finally, Ms. Swanson’s stabs at social relevance feel forced, particularly one cringeworthy exchange over salary between Katharyn and her maid, Alma. Similar nods toward autism and lesbianism seem to be playing to modern interest in those topics, because neither are explored in any depth.
Still, The Bookseller is an accomplished first novel. It is interesting, intriguing, and ultimately satisfying. Modern readers who have been embroiled in the decades-long discussion of a woman’s ability to have it all and the sacrifices that must be made for that to happen should find that this adds to the debate with a bit of whimsy and a touch of fantasy.