For books and solitude

February 9, 2020

Abbi Waxman explores the fate of independent bookstores and the place of spontaneity in our lives

I’m not sure who I’m writing this review for because all the reading buffs I know find their next reads the way young people meet potential spouses these days, i.e. by scouting the territory – which in this case refers to a bookstore – and picking whatever fancies their attention than letting the verdict of a Rishta Aunty (or a reviewer in our case) guide their judgement. Having said that, I hope that the universe conspires in persuading some of you into reading this review and afterwards the actual book, i.e. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman.

I myself found it by chance, or as many of those familiar with the self-help genre would put it, by the “law of attraction” which just tells us that I found it at a time when I was in between jobs and selling books was one of my contingency plans to keep paying the taxes like the dutiful citizen that I am. Considering it was published in late 2019, add to which the time it takes for books to appear in Lahore’s bookstores, it was not that long ago. I’m happily employed again, in case anyone is wondering, but in that limbo of #GivenTheResignationWhileWaitingForDreamOffer the lure of the bookish life of this single, 29 something, anxiety-ridden, introvert, bookselling millennial, was too relatable to resist. The eponymous protagonist of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill seemed to be #LivingTheDream, and I had to find out more about her.

The story opens with interlinked quotes on solitude, independence, and happiness in the characteristic contemporary fiction fashion. Like the bank letters that open most of Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, the reader is then presented with a graphic representation of an entry from Nina’s planner which tells us her current read (“Finish Oliphant” i.e. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine), the existence of a cat Phil, in her life (“To-Do: Cat food”), the struggle for a healthier lifestyle (“Goal: Drink More Water, Workout: Spin before Trivia?”) but more so her obsessive need to organise each and every aspect of her life. This is followed by Chapter One subtitled “In which we meet our heroine and witness a crime of thoughtlessness” reminiscent of the classic English novels we pretend to have read and enjoyed while secretly funding SparkNotes in gratitude. The writing actually begins with “Imagine you are a bird” which made me go, ‘Woah! Direct address to the reader!’ in my mind as I ticked the imaginary checkbox that I was hitherto unaware of keeping.

The story opens with interlinked quotes on solitude, independence, and happiness in the characteristic contemporary fiction fashion. Like the bank letters that open most of Kinsella’s Shopaholic series.

As we read further, we taste a flavour of a regular workday at Knight’s, a fictional book shop based on the real-life Chevalier in Los Angeles. Nina is busy dealing with a customer who wants to return Pride and Prejudice because she found it boring. If you actually imagined being a bird, this is the moment where you’d want to poop on the woman’s head, the narrator casually remarks this, thus cementing our alliance with Nina and the reading community. Here we get to know that Nina has been living practically in the book-world throughout her life. In the absence of a father she is unaware of, and a mother with a travel bug so strong that she compares her with the absentee Great Uncle Matthew from The Ballet Shoes, Nina is largely raised up by her nanny, Louise, who sets her on the path of a lifelong love of reading. With her days working at Knight’s and evenings filled with trivia competitions, reading and book-club we see a girl who has deliberately fortified herself against outside intrusion.

Her peace is short-lived, however. The chink in her armour of solitude appears two ways: through a lawyer, she discovers the death of her father whom she hasn’t met. Consequently, she becomes an heir to a one-of-a-kind fortune as well as a family full of stepsiblings, cousins, nephews and nieces and so on. In the world of heart, she becomes inclined towards her trivia nemesis, Tom, who is the archetypal cute, caring and a funny guy, being with whom feels “as good as being alone”. Add to this the onslaught of a pot-infused personalised makeup brand on their bookshop space due to months of nonpayment and the agony of losing her workplace aka sanctuary, and we see some decisions not entirely thought through. It is, however, through her dealing of the situation afterwards that Nina begins to realise that at times happy endings require a few character inserts in the otherwise complete story of our lives.

While at first glance The Bookish Life of Nina Hill may appear like an easy-breezy beachy read to some, feeding into all our fantasies of acquiring capital in social and other ways, the book also raises issues such as the fate of independent bookstores in the post-Amazon culture, the joy of familial bonds and the role inheritance plays in shaping our beings but most importantly of the place of spontaneity in the rigid plots of our lives. Add to it the witty asides of narrator and frequent references to books and book culture, the story leaves us wanting to read more of Abbi Waxman, and of course, buy a planner.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Author: Abbi Waxman

Publisher: Berkely (Penguin Random House Imprint)

Pages: 333

Price: Rs1,195

The writer is a Distinction holder in  Children’s Literature and Literacies from University of Glasgow, UK and currently works as a lecturer at UMT, Lahore.
She tweets at @readlikematilda

For books and solitude: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman