Writers & Lovers
“The best readership for this novel may be those most fascinated by the real or imagined lives of artists, a journey that King has portrayed effectively and compassionately with well-crafted prose, evocative descriptions, and spot-on dialogue.”
Fans of the brilliant and widely acclaimed Euphoria, Lily King’s lush 2014 novel loosely based on Margaret Mead, are likely to find Writers & Lovers a very different work.
For one, readers may wonder if or how much of this writer-struggling-with-first-novel story is autofiction. Casey Peabody, the protagonist, is 31, and to say she is struggling is like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground. Casey’s beloved mother has died; she’s still bleeding after an intense, sensuous relationship with a poet at an exclusive writer’s retreat (say maybe the MacDowell Colony at which King was a fellow) during which Casey was as distracted as the poet was lavishly productive. She’s living in a rented moldy shed back in Boston now, fending off bill collectors, her transportation a salvaged bike. A whopping $72,000 behind in student debt, her only income is waiting tables at an upscale Cambridge restaurant. Her father’s still a problem, her only brother supportive but 3,000 miles away. Small wonder she’s having panic attacks—but she’s still not given up on being a writer, even if she’s not making a lot of progress on the novel she’s been working on for six years.
There aren’t many serious writers who won’t resonate with Casey’s lament: “The rest of the week goes badly. My writing flounders. Every sentence feels flat, every detail fake. I go for long runs along the river, to Watertown, to Newton, ten miles, twelve miles, which help, but after a few hours, the bees start crawling again. I scroll the 206 pages I have on the computer and skim the new pages I have in my notebook since Red Barn. I can’t find one moment, one sentence, that’s any good. Even the scenes I’ve clung to when all else seems lost—those first pages I wrote in Pennsylvania and the chapter I wrote in Albuquerque that poured out of me like a visitation—have dimmed. It all looks like a long stream of words, like someone with a disease that involves delusions has written them. I am wasting my life. I am wasting my life. It pounds like a heartbeat. For three days straight it rains, and the potting shed starts to smell like compost.”
In case her life wasn’t messy enough, enter two love interests, one an older, successful writer with two adorable children who adore her. A widower, he would ease the rest of her problems, but is that a good reason to move in with him? And that other one is a fellow aspiring writer, but he takes off on some mystery trip just when she is falling for him. How reliable is he? What is the place of love in Casey’s—a writer’s—life, anyway? Can it enhance what she brings to the work or only divide her focus?
Casey is a near-prototype of a post-graduate with agonizing questions radiating out from the dream of being a writer: how and when and if one can commit to a life as an artist. The questions one asks oneself. Do I carry on even while most of the others in my MFA program have let go? Is my work that good?/any good? Will it ever be? How can I support myself? Maybe I need to grow up and get a real job. Can I give this up?/I can’t give this up. (How about teaching?) These are coming of age questions, and, perhaps relevant to millennials dreaming of other lives in the extended psychological adolescence our society affords at least some. The long postponement, the agony and luxury of self, relationship, and true vocation discovery.
In the midst of Casey’s long, difficult struggle, through which she does persevere, there may also be an element of self-indulgence that comes of being highly educated: the notion that if one can put up with the pain and considerable complexity, one can wait it out and keep trying different avenues until one finds the right way to one’s own home. The best readership for this novel may be those most fascinated by the real or imagined lives of artists, a journey that King has portrayed effectively and compassionately with well-crafted prose, evocative descriptions, and spot-on dialogue.