Thanks to the synopsis on the back of the book, I picked up The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman at an independent bookstore (the only place I’m willing to spend my book money these days). Basically, Nina is an introvert who works in a bookstore, but when she discovers that her birth father, whom she never met, is now dead and left her something in his will, she has to face a barrage of new family members. Since her father married and made children throughout his life, she has siblings old enough to be her parent, nieces and nephews her own age, and even great-nieces and nephews. It reminds me of Joe Fox’s family in the movie You’ve Got Mail.
Not only is Nina coerced into meeting her new family, but she’s got a very full planner: different book clubs ever week, films with friends, trivia nights, “do nothing” nights (which she will not cancel even though it’s “nothing”), and work. So when the captain of a rival trivia team seems kinda-sorta-maybe interested, Nina isn’t sure she has the emotional capacity to fit him into her introverted self who is only able to do what is scheduled to keep her from getting anxious or failing to leave her apartment.
There are a few things I loved about The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. Immediately was the writing. The wonderful omniscient narrator, who is witty, wonderful, surely female, and definitely a separate character watching over all the others, drew me in with the first two sentences: “Imagine you’re a bird. You can be any kind of bird, but those of you who’ve chosen ostrich or chicken are going to struggle to keep up.”
I loved this “talky” narrator guiding the story, dipping into Nina’s and trivia Tom’s heads when it suits, though she is not limited to the love birds. Much like the narrator of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the narrator talks to the reader. Waxman’s narrator notes that Nina is the “heroine of both her own life and the book you’re holding in your lovely hand.”
The narrator even riffs on the wild names white parents give their children in 2019, using Aubergine, Elephantine, and Salamander as examples. Basically, this narrator creates a wonderful world for readers to travel in, and I enjoyed every second under her guidance.
Secondly, I felt connected to Waxman’s depictions of anxiety as a mental health issue that dramatically affects people. We’ve all seen people chalk up their shortcomings to whatever mental health issue is relevant: ADD, ADHD,
Autism (as Lou pointed out in the comments: “autism is a congenital neurological condition, not a mental health problem (though autistic people are more likely to develop mental health problems). People are born with it.” Thank you, Lou!), depression, OCD, etc. Doing so diminishes the struggles people truly diagnosed with a mental health issue go through. Nina feels people are “exhausting,” not in an impatient way, but in the way “leaving her apartment every morning was the turning over of a giant hourglass, the mental energy she’s stored up overnight eroding grain by grain.” If you’re not familiar with spoonies, Waxman gives a great analogy of how it feels to be an introvert with anxiety. When those bits of sand are gone, you are so done. I related hardcore to Nina, but I believe that my extrovert chums (hi, Jackie!) may learn what it’s like for those of us who turtle in and come off as rude — but really don’t want to.
Lastly, I was so thankful that this work of chick lit is more honest than fluffy. Nina hasn’t been celibate since that one time she lost her virginity in college. She and Tom are not “meet cute” people. Unlike Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail, Tom isn’t manipulative, a stalker, nor does he take advantage of Nina. He’s still very much a dude-dude, nailing the sports questions at trivia and missing all of Nina’s book references in conversations. I didn’t finish the novel with a wad of floofiness in my heart, nor did the book feel chaste, ladylike, or saccharine to me.
Not ladylike example:
Nina tried to pull herself together. She’d been irritable all week. Either her period was coming or she had a brain tumor, and at that moment the tumor felt more appealing, which probably meant it was her period.
I read it quite fast, and I would be happy to read The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman again in the near future.