It’s 1997 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Casey is thirty-one. She’s been working on a novel for six years and waitressing to pay for her apartment. Well, it’s not really an apartment. Her brother convinced his friend to let Casey rent a somewhat-moldy potting shed. While life is not ideal — Casey is single, lives in squalor, doing the job most pick up to get through college, her mom just died, and she has loads of debt — she has a routine that enables her to write daily and a couple good friends. Folks in my book club felt Casey was a hot mess, but to me, she was both miserable about money and her mother’s death, and living the life of her choosing, and I respect that.
The premise of Writer’s and Lovers by Lily King sounds basic, and I know several readers on Goodreads didn’t get along with the plot. I found magic more in the moments than the sustained narrative or any one character. King captures what Casey feels like when she writes each day:
The hardest thing about writing is getting in every day, breaking through the membrane. The second-hardest thing is getting out. Sometimes I sink down too deep and come up too fast. Afterward I feel wide open and skinless.
Wisely written in first person, Writers and Lovers gets readers up close to Casey and the way she feels in each moment. Lily King graciously came to my online book club and talked about how she didn’t want this novel to be about plot, characters, or symbols, but about what the reader feels throughout. I know I reacted emotionally the entire book. Whether Casey is oscillating between two men who are interested in her or biking to work through a flock of Canadian geese, each moment caused me to connect through senses and adjust my emotions.
It’s not just King’s descriptions that changed how I felt as I read. The reality of Casey’s situation hit me hard. Though she’s been working at the same restaurant for a while, she learns that management never told her she could sign up for health insurance. Once she does, she schedules preventative appointments that most people do yearly. The problems spiral; she’s thirty one, so issues could be nothing or that ominous “something.” Heavy periods mean her gynecologist decides on a treatment plan:
You have no nerve endings on your cervix, they explain, so you don’t need to use a local anesthetic. But there is an awful snapping sound, and soon the room is filled with a smell you want to unsmell immediately and can’t. This is their job, I think, smelling burnt cervix.
Something I told King at our online book club (possibly to the chagrin of my book club leader) is that I was surprised by the way Writers and Lovers paid attention to the character’s vagina. Not intimacy, not her body in general, but the experience of having a vagina. I can think of numerous examples of books written by men that take care to tell readers exactly what is going on with his character’s penis, and we think this is normal, to be pursued by penises. King responded with great joy, saying my comment may be the best compliment she’s ever received about Writers and Lovers. I didn’t expect that reaction! But there are moments that pay attention to Casey’s body that stuck with me because they are specifically about her vagina:
He slides his fingers into my underwear but they don’t go in the right places and he has a couple of sharp fingernails.
Now, you may be thinking, “Ewww.” But you may also be thinking, “Sounds about right.” These direct connections to readers who have vaginas were, surprisingly, novel to me.
Though King said she didn’t set out to write a book about misogyny, it does crop up in a novel about a female writer who crosses paths with male writers whom she meets at writing retreats and book signings. One of her suitors is forty-five, has several books published, and leads a writing workshop he created after being widowed with two children at home. He complains that his latest reading takes place in a bookstore instead of the packed church in which a woman writer recently read. Casey notes:
Nearly every guy I’ve dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny and they were already behind schedule. . . . I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.
In the end, I cared less about where the book was going, especially if Casey changed her financial situation or who she would date exclusively, and more how I felt about each situation. Zeroing in on a scene, a moment, a second felt like the behavior I’ve been trying to emulate during the pandemic, taught to me by my spouse, Nick: focus on a tree, the curl of one leaf, the ant on that leaf.