Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.
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Rosecrans Baldwin: Welcome back, everyone. This week we’re discussing the second half of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, in which we’re going to be revealing spoilers left and right as our heroine Casey finds true love, artististic bliss, a wonderful job, financial splendor—basically a huge dollop of good old-fashioned happiness!! And I know a pair of exclamation points may suggest I’m a cynical jerk who wants to fling this book out the window, but truthfully the world is awful and strange in all kinds of ways at present, and Writers & Lovers provided me with many flights of carefree escapism, and that didn’t feel entirely horrible? Even if I also wanted to fling it out the window.
Joining me to kick off the conversation today is Activity Leader Nancy McPhee. Nancy, can you introduce yourself a little bit?
Nancy McPhee: Hi! I’m a public librarian in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on the Great Lakes, where I run literary and arts programming. My background is actually in visual arts, which I studied in British Columbia and Montreal. Although literary programming is the main part of my job, I maintain a part-time art practice as an installation and textile artist and work with a local co-op gallery that my husband and I founded with some friends.
Rosecrans: Very cool. What types of books interest you when you’re reading outside of work? Also, how are you weathering the pandemic?
Nancy: Popular science, nordic noir, and sci-fi are my escapist reading, with a smattering of contemporary literature. The majority of my reading is for my job for which I read local and regional writers, CanLit, popular fiction, and nonfiction.
I’ve weathered the pandemic quite well. I’m fortunate to work for an organization that had a pandemic plan prepared and to be in a community that took the recommendations seriously. Organizations like The Disability Justice Network of Ontario’s Caremongering Facebook Group have helped so many with financial and physical restrictions, and there’ve been consistent donations of food, PPE, and money, and to Canadian Blood Services. I’ve been working from home with my two kids and three cats. We’re pretty annoyed with each other, but we’re healthy.
Rosecrans: That’s great to hear. So, to start, since we’re talking today about the second half of the book, talk to me about your general impressions of the first half.
Nancy: This book ended up taking a sharp turn from my initial expectations. The beginning touches on the realities of working in the arts and lets the reader fall into the patterns and rhythms of daily life. Casey is stuck and in mourning. Muriel is a good friend. The restaurant scenes are vivid. A bit before the midway point I realized this is a romance novel, and that’s when I began to struggle with it.
Rosecrans: What made it difficult for you?
Nancy: I was hoping for something more nuanced. Working in the arts is hard and I find it frustrating when popular media has inaccurate portrayals that influence popular perception. Of her Salvatore’s bookstore mates [a store where Casey worked prior to her waitressing job at Iris —ed.], a few walked away, another married a jerk—only Casey remained to fight the good fight, and she was quickly rewarded with success. As though she earned it by working long hours. Fun story: I once took over a visual-arts book club and sort of ran it into the ground because I selected titles that realistically portrayed artists. They were not popular. Anywho, someone else runs it now and it‘s doing well.
Rosecrans: Yeah, because if publishing and Hollywood were to depict writers as we really are, it would involve a lot of… grocery shopping, email, procrastination, anxiety treatments, and so on? Forgive me. As to the book turning out to be a romance?
Nancy: I struggled with the book as a romance because I then understood how it would end, that she would choose the nice guy and find professional success. I wish I had come away with a sense of what it was to be a female writer in the ’90s, what the literary landscape was like, or really anything more than details about ironing her shirt.
Rosecrans: The publishing side turned out to be so corny, I really did throw this book on the across the room. Let’s put that off for a moment. What did you like about the book?
Nancy: King communicates that rhythm of restaurant work where everyday is the same and simultaneously, every moment needs to be special. This is a shared quality of many public service jobs, showmanship and boredom tied together.
Rosecrans: Absolutely. Great point.
Blindsided by her mother’s sudden death, and wrecked by a recent love affair, Casey Peabody has arrived in Massachusetts in the summer of 1997 without a plan. A former child golf prodigy, she now waits tables in Harvard Square and rents a tiny, moldy room at the side of a garage where she works on the novel she’s been writing for six years. At 31, Casey is still clutching onto something nearly all her old friends have let go of: the determination to live a creative life. When she falls for two very different men at the same time, her world fractures even more. Casey’s fight to fulfill her creative ambitions and balance the conflicting demands of art and life is challenged in ways that push her to the brink.
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Nancy: The power plays at Iris were a bit overwrought, as were Gory and Thomas’s buffoonery, but not out of the realm of the possible. Aside from the restaurant scenes the most memorable sense for me is of that time in our lives when we slide easily from job to job, friend to friend, easily letting things go and landing without intent. It falls into the romance genre clichés that the landings are perfectly fitted to her unique specialness.
Rosecrans: I think that’s true also. Commentariat: If there are any big romance readers out there, please let us know how and why this may or may not be the case!
For me, Casey was many things: a young person, a young woman, a young writer, a grieving daughter, a questing lover, and a modern American struggling with debt and hopelessness in the service industry. I think it was that last type that rang truest for me, and it links to your observation about the sliding-ness of life when there’s so little stability underfoot. What was your main frame for Casey’s story?
Nancy: The character of Casey was the strongest feature of this novel for me, and I most closely understood her through her grief. I lost a parent in my teens, but it was the unexpected death of a good friend two years ago that I thought about while reading this book. When the day has a particular mood or you learn some obscure tidbit that only that person will appreciate, you start to reach out, then remember they’re gone. That pain surprises you, popping up when you are having a random thought. King captured those interruptions, the way grief rides sidecar for years.
Rosecrans: About the love story: We know early on that Casey is both persevering and vulnerable—a heady mix—but Oskar and Silas, even by the end of the book, didn’t show themselves to be much of a catch worth her dedication. (Anyone who hasn’t read the book yet: She ends up with Silas, but that won’t be much of a surprise.) What was your take?
Nancy: I would agree that neither character is worth her dedication. Both suitors are one-dimensional; their purpose seems to represent two paths rather than to stand on their own as characters. Does Casey choose the pre-made family and professional veneer [of Oskar], or Silas’s chipped tooth that matches his personality, he’s quirky and honest! King’s portrayal is more complicated than that, we can see crossover with Casey’s father and Oskar when Oskar smirks while thinking of kissing a younger woman [Casey’s father is revealed in the book to spy on young women in the high school locker room, possibly including her. —ed.], or his ridiculous tantrums. This is an interesting way to think about how predatory or entitled patriarchal personalities exist on a continuum, and can move along that continuum as the story progresses. It makes me think of Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, where the abusive father and good-natured professor are revealed to be equally willing to harm and humiliate a young girl. Ultimately I think King’s strength is not writing men, or children.
Rosecrans: So let’s talk about where the novel leaves Casey. In rapid order, she lands a literary agent, secures a teaching job despite having basically no experience, sells her novel to a big publishing company for more money than she owes in debt, and drives off into the sunset with Silas. Am I missing anything?
Nancy: Casey is the Canada goose that is already home. She found love, an agent, a refined job where her creative side is encouraged. She’s fine. It’s a tidy conclusion that, for me, suggests a linear future.
Rosecrans: The publishing aspects had me laughing for all the wrong reasons. And meanwhile it all works out in love, career, and lasagna, too? I mean, I love a romantic comedy, and the pages turned quickly enough, but it all felt awfully like, I don’t know, an even fizzier ending than the last 10 minutes of Notting Hill—too harsh?
Nancy: Let’s say I agree, and maybe one day I’ll watch Notting Hill to confirm! This is a genre novel. It’s tidy, unrealistic, details are foggy, characters are overwritten, and it comes together in a way that is satisfying for readers of the genre. This kind of book is not my cup of tea, but I don’t want to criticize it for being non-literary; I’m just surprised it ended up in a literary competition. Also, Canada geese are grumps. They do not pretend to nip, they feign attack. Even the geese are unrealistic in this book.
Rosecrans: I am so glad we have a Canadian around the campfire this week! Final question: Will you recommend it to a friend?
Nancy: I’ll recommend it to work colleagues for book clubs. A good book club title has talking points and is a fast and easy read. Writers & Lovers can support discussions about why we choose our partners or take certain life paths, with a bit of nostalgia for pre-cell-phone days. There’s an audience for this kind of everything-will-be-alright-but-the-road-has-bumps story. For a friend? No. It’s off to the Free Little Library.
Rosecrans: Thanks so much, Nancy, for joining this week. Friends, join us in the comments and let us know what you think, then return next week when we dive into another book-in-snippets, Jenny Offill’s Weather, where we’ll swap romantic fizz for the climate crisis and I’ll be less cynical! Or way more! See you then.
The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar
- June 3: The City We Became through page 214 (finish chapter 7)
- June 10: The City We Became to the end
- June 17: Sharks in the Time of Saviors through page 191 (finish part 2)
- June 24: Sharks in the Time of Saviors to the end
- July 1: VACATION
- July 8: The Night Watchman through page 227
- July 15: The Night Watchman to the end
- July 22: Such a Fun Age through part two
- July 29: Such a Fun Age to the end
- Aug. 5: Writers & Lovers through page 165
- Aug. 12: Writers & Lovers to the end
- Aug. 19: Weather through page 99
- Aug. 26: Weather to the end
- Sept. 2: Announce summer champion