A beautiful mess

November 22, 2020

Writers & Lovers by Lily King paints a vivid picture of the agony that is writing a novel

Robert Hass once memorably wrote that “it’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing; the only tolerable state is having just written.” When reading Writers & Lovers by Lily King, it’s easy to see what he meant as King paints a vivid picture of the agony that is writing a novel while adding poignant beauty to the mundane details of life that only the most artful of writers can.

Set in 1997 against the backdrop of Harvard and a bustling upscale restaurant where our struggling writer works, so much of the story feels made for Hollywood and reminiscent of rom-coms and sitcoms of that era in the best way possible. Casey Peabody is a 30-something woman in turmoil, a fact we are immediately drawn to in the opening of the novel. Living life on a tightrope, she battles many demons including the unexpected early demise of her mother, a fraught relationship with her paedophile father, and crushing student loans and debt, to name a few, while trying to churn out her first novel - a project that has gone on for the last six years, though not for lack of trying.

“I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse,” says the embattled writer, after her landlord snidely comments “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.” Stuck living in her landlord’s rotting garden shed that has been converted into a small studio space, she has only a waitressing job to support herself and cycles three miles to work every day on a bike she found in a dump.

A wonderfully wry sense of humour lightens the tone of the story, misery and suffering notwithstanding. Harry, a friend of Casey’s who works at the restaurant alongside her “became English at age nine when he switched schools and changed his name from Haroon to Harry” after moving from Lahore to northeast London. When she finally finishes her novel and goes to the post office to send it on its way to her agents, someone in line exclaims “That the Great Amer…” to which Casey tiredly replies, “Yup. That’s exactly what it is,” followed by a post office employee drily commenting “Let’s hope your next six years are a little more exciting, sweetie pie.”

To say that this story glamourises misery and suffering would not be inaccurate: in fact, Casey’s life often feels like one misfortune after the next and a thread of hopelessness is woven through the story. She is terribly thin and pale, “You look like a vampire. And not the sexy kind,” comments one of the chefs at the restaurants she waitresses at. When she suffers a big medical scare partway through the story, we find she has no health insurance. Casey has moved around a lot and seems un-tethered, adding to the image of a lost and forlorn soul trapped in a life of transience. “After Paris and before Pennsylvania and Albuquerque and Oregon and Spain and Rhode Island,” she notes about the timeframe of a past job.

She is also constantly unlucky in love with one train-wreck relationship after another haunting her until she finds herself tangled in a love triangle or “the seesaw, the hot and cold” as King calls it, with two very different men: Oscar, a recently widowed, very successful older writer who is father to two adorable little boys, and Silas, a flaky and depressed young writer who has also suffered loss and finds a deep connection with Casey. Both relationships are charming and Casey’s confusion about which one to ultimately choose gives the novel a rom-com-esque flair very reminiscent of the ’90s classic You’ve Got Mail.

Despite the backdrop of anguish and anxiety, one feels not just protective of Casey but also hopeful that her luck will turn, given her unwavering spirit in the face of such odds. Casey is dedicated to her craft, spending the early hours of every morning writing at her desk before walking her landlord’s dog, referred to only as “Adam’s dog” in one of King’s many clever, wry little nuggets in the story.

As the story unfolds and we learn more about Casey’s childhood witnessing her parents’ faltering marriage, abandonment by her mother, the shock of catching her father peeping into the high school girls’ changing room through a hole in his office wall, the sudden death of her mother, and a particularly jarring doomed relationship in the wake of that loss, it is difficult not to feel compassion and hope that she can find some stability and happiness after so much grief.

On her way to work during her daily commute, Casey passes by a flock of geese that lives under a footbridge and symbolises her inner world, being mentioned at differing times in the tale as an anchoring and poetic motif. “I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for,” she consoles herself.

King powerfully peppers her writing with the most haunting and gorgeous details that make the story spring to life and feel visceral, “dusk and the windows slowly blackening, the soft orange light from the gilt sconces that masks the grease stains on the tablecloths and the calcium spots we might have missed on the wineglasses” she writes of the restaurant at the twilight hour. At another point, she mentions the marigolds by the roadside as Casey breaks off a particularly painful relationship with a man and the fact that he smelled bad, something she had stopped noticing when she was embroiled in their destructive love affair.

In the final scene of the novel, after a precarious nervous breakdown and OCD spiral, Casey finally seems to end up where she belongs and the geese, so often honking and thrashing about, are for once peacefully “asleep”. Our poor protagonist’s fortunes seem finally to have turned much like in a Hollywood movie. She’s ending up in a happy place - or at least happy-for-now place. Whether it is believable or not is a question that stands, but there remains no doubt that it is truly the well deserved poetic justice our character is due. One closes the story feeling dreamy and satisfied, if not a little wrecked from the emotional crescendo of the tale, and therein lies Lily King’s accomplishment.

Writer & Lovers

Author: Lily King

Publisher: Grove Press

Pages: 320

Price: $16.84 (Hardcover)

The writer is a bibliophile, lawyer and freelance journalist

A beautiful mess: Writers & Lovers by Lily King paints a vivid picture of the agony that is writing a novel