If there is one sub-genre of grief-lit that will have me sobbing more than any other, it’s the one where kids lose their mother. I know we’re in the middle of a paper-products crisis but man, did I burn through my quota of tissues reading Writers & Lovers by Lily King.
It’s 1997, and Casey, in her early-thirties, spends her days working on the novel that she’s been writing for six years; her nights waitressing at an upscale restaurant; and every single moment grieving her mother. Her mother’s sudden death prompts Casey to consider all aspects of her life – her enormous student debt; her failed relationships; and the fact that her artistic friends have all ditched creative pursuits for ‘real’ jobs.
I haven’t mentioned my mother at the restaurant yet. I don’t want to be the girl whose mother just died.
And then Casey meets two very different men – one with whom she has great chemistry, the other who offers the sort of kindness and stability that she craves.
I’m done with the seesaw, the hot and cold, the guys who don’t know or can’t tell you what they want. I’m done with kissing that melts your bones followed by ten days of silence followed by a fucking pat on the arm at the T stop
Don’t be fooled by the apparent bad boy/ good guy narrative – King’s characters are far more nuanced and their circumstances more complex than I’ve revealed. Casey’s relationships with both men magnify the themes of loss and grief, as well as providing insight into her anxieties, and her own tangled family history. There’s a lot of emotional action in this book but King executes it with notable conciseness, leaving the reader to ponder their own experiences –
I’ve forgotten what gets revealed right after you break up with someone.
This is a book about writing and creative identity and much of the plot centres around Casey’s experience of working on her novel. However, as Casey herself states, considering the obvious in a book can ‘pull you out of a story’. Instead, a reader should push further in, and try to ‘…feel everything the author tried so hard to create’. Is that King’s meta message? How much of Casey’s story is also King’s? I didn’t ponder that for too long, or hit Google for definitive answers. Instead, I allowed myself to be pulled into her brief but aching observations about the experience of grief –
The air between us crackles, as it does when you speak of your beloved dead. But it’s hard to know what to say next.
Casey experiences many kinds of loss – from the obvious death of her mother, to the less obvious – the grief felt when expectations aren’t met.
That’s the wall I always slam into on a good morning like this. My mother will be worrying about me, and I can’t tell her that I’m okay.
You don’t realise how much effort you’ve put into covering things up until you try to dig them out.
I don’t want to make this book out to be overwhelmingly sad. It’s not. There are bits that are very funny. There are some gorgeous characters (the little boys! Her friends Harry and Muriel!). There are excellent restaurant scenes (snap to it, fans of Sweetbitter). And it’s chock-a-block with sensational writing.
Time is mercurial when you’re with children. A whole morning making pancakes and playing freeze tag goes by in a minute, whereas waiting for Jasper to tie his shoes or catch up on his bike is endless.
4/5 Quite sure this will be in my favourites for 2020.
I received my copy of Writers & Lovers from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
He made me a Catalan fish stew in his room in Central Square, When he kissed me he smelled like Europe.