Lily King’s new novel, Writers & Lovers, is a glimpse into life as a female artist in 1990s Boston. The story is told by Casey, a debt-ridden waitress with a graduate degree who’s trying to finish the novel she’s been working on for six years. The recent death of her mother has left her physically and emotionally frail, as has a recent breakup with a poet.
Those who have worked in restaurants will appreciate King’s apt descriptions of that life –– the behind-the-scenes reality of other people’s expensive dinners celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Many writers start in the margins, MFA or not, and many never leave.
Casey meets an esteemed older novelist, Oscar Kolton, while waiting on him. Some of her writer friends attend Oscar’s workshop at his home each week, so she knows who he is and, of course, wants to impress him. She’s pleasantly surprised when he starts pursuing her, showing off his humble charm amid of all his admirers. He’s also cute and self-deprecating on dates. But Casey soon entangles herself with another man, too — Silas, another young writer who happens to be Oscar’s student. She unsurprisingly delays the decision of choosing one or the other or none.
King reveals these characters’ motives gently. It’s easy to forget that the narrative is from a first-person perspective, as Casey is also gentle and doesn’t do anything out of a need for attention. She’s careful in her words and actions. She recognizes her spiraling quasi-depression but also her desire for normalcy, for a family someday and just a bit of understanding.
These self-realizations are pocked with comments from men who don’t believe she’ll succeed. Her landlord, Adam, says when he finds out she’s working on a novel: “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.”
She thinks to herself later: “I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels worse.”
The book is set in 1997, but the themes King explores are just as potent today. Casey knows that the fact of her womanhood gets in the way of other people’s perception of her writing. But it also gets in the way of her confidence behind it. She says boys are raised to think they’ll do great things, noting, “I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.”
This kind of thinking also applies to relationships, she discovers. Does a man love you when he simply feels his best around you? Or is that just the man being in love with himself? On a date with Oscar, she can tell when she’s being assessed:
“You get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up in a terrible tangle that’s hard to unravel.”
King is the author of the breakout novel, Euphoria, which won the 2014 Kirkus Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has again written a skillfully crafted story that’s full of beautiful language and intellectual stimulation. She captures the young writer’s struggle, as Casey navigates life without a salary, with mountains of student debt and nothing to show for it.
Yes, there are breakdowns, and yes, there’s misogyny. But there are also more opportunities to come to know the self in these struggles. Even if it’s just admitting that you’re going through a crisis at age thirty-one after your mother died. And, apparently, knowing yourself helps you narrow down all the male writers who are after you romantically.
Writers & Lovers
By Lily King
Published March 3, 2020