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 to our last month of Camp 2020! Our first book of August is Writers & Lovers by Lily King. But before we get into it, let me bring in Andrew to announce July’s winner.
Andrew Womack: Your votes are counted, even the mail-in ones, and The Night Watchman is heading to our end-of-summer finale, where it will join Sharks in the Time of Saviors and one of this month’s books—Writers & Lovers or Weather—in a final poll, the winner of which snags a spot in the 2021 Tournament of Books.
Thank you to everyone who voted and read and discussed along with us!
Rosecrans: Writers & Lovers is a story-in-snippets, composed mostly of short scenes set in the 1990s about a woman in her early thirties named Casey, who’s grappling with her struggle to finish writing a novel; grief over her mother’s sudden death; anxiety around tens of thousands of dollars in student debt; and vexation over boyfriends old and new, in particular two men who’ve come into her life recently, causing a (pretty contrived) love triangle of literary ambition: a published author and widow named Oskar, who has two young sons and telegraphs stability, conformity, and generally being a bit of a jerk; and Silas, an aspiring writer with a rundown car who telegraphs wanderlust, regular lust, and inferior orthodontia.
To dig into all of this, we’re joined by Activity Leader Bindu Tummuru. Bindu, can you introduce yourself a little bit to everyone at Camp?
Bindu Tummuru: Hello everyone! I am a stay-at-home mom in California. Like everyone else, I love reading. I pretty much spent most of my childhood/teen years reading everything and anything. I went on a hiatus from reading during college and my young adult years and rediscovered my love of reading when I was pregnant with my first child. I love reading historical fiction and thrillers, although lately I have been loving nonfiction and short stories as well.
Rosecrans: How are you holding up with the pandemic?
Bindu: To be honest, recently I have been listening more to audiobooks rather than reading actual physical books; with the kids stuck at home due to quarantine, I have less time to just sit and read. Overall, I think we are managing the quarantine well. A bit haggard but we are no worse for the wear. We are all healthy and that is all that really matters in the end.
Rosecrans: So, talk to me about your general impressions of the first half of Writers & Lovers—all Boston bridges, banana bicycles, bad boyfriends. Where are you connecting with the story, where are you struggling?
Bindu: I am really loving this book. I find Casey very relatable and really sympathize with her starving artist struggles. I know the feeling of living paycheck to paycheck. Financial instability is so scary. Seeing friends succeed and move on with their lives while you are stuck and floundering is hard. You do feel so alone sometimes.
Bindu: That, coupled with trying to cope with the death of a beloved parent—no wonder her body is breaking down due to the anxiety of all the baggage she is juggling. I wish I could reach inside this book and give Casey a hug.
Rosecrans: Being hounded by debt is a crushing experience; the anxiety can be crippling, feel never-ending. Ron Charles highlighted a quote from Casey in his review of the book and I’ll repeat it: “All I can do now is manage it, pay the minimums until—and this is the thing—until what? Until when? There’s no answer. That’s part of my looming blank specter.” Luckily, Casey has some friends she can rely on.
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.
Bindu: I absolutely love Casey’s friendship with Muriel [another aspiring writer and one of Casey’s coworkers—ed.] It reminds me a lot of my relationship with my best friend. Although I liked reading about her trying to decide between two very different men, I really didn’t understand her attraction to Silas. That smile with the chipped tooth can’t be that great.
Rosecrans: I’ll say I didn’t really understand her attraction to either of her lovers, but we’ll get to that later, especially next week when we dissect the second half.
For my part, in this first half, I find the lucidity of details in scenes from Casey’s work to be some of my favorite moments. She’s a waitress in a semi-fancy Boston restaurant called Iris that’s popular with Harvard types. I’ve never waited tables, but I delivered pizza for several years, and all the ins and outs of a restaurant’s procedures and power dynamics are really well drawn.
I did find it odd that, when we get to see moments of Casey actually writing her novel or thinking about it—at least in the first half of the book—the story’s fuzzier. Is it because it matters less to the narrative at this point, or this is a realistic portrayal of a young writer finding their way?
Bindu: I think that the actual story of the novel doesn’t matter. It’s about her journey to get something published. That she actually desires to become a published author when people are telling her to get a “real job.” It’s like an inside peek into an aspiring writer’s life. I agree with you that the restaurant scenes are written well and very relatable to anyone that has held a job in the service industry. I also loved her inner musings about various books and authors.
Rosecrans: Me too. Those snippets about famous authors in relation to their mothers, page 86 of the hardcover edition, are so good.
As a child Edith Wharton had been scolded by her mother for wanting to be alone to make things up, and forbidden to read novels until after marriage. When her mother died, she sent her husband to the funeral. She stayed home to write. She was thirty-nine, and she published her first novel the following year.
As for this being a novel about a young person trying to write a novel… well, I mean, at least she doesn’t live in Brooklyn. I’ll have a lot more to say about publishing next week, but at this point it’s a heartfelt example, and so vivid at times, I find it pretty easy to remember little snapshots.
Rosecrans: Like all the little moments of Casey falling in love at the artist retreat, which I’m 99 percent sure is MacDowell.
Bindu: It almost feels like a pressure cooker about to explode at times while she is going through all these trials and tribulations. I do like that we are given small snapshots of her life rather than everything all at once. It feels sort of like a puzzle in a way. All those moments, when added all up, makes the reader understand why Casey is at a pivotal time in her life. I really enjoyed her interactions with Oskar’s sons, her friendships with Muriel and Harry [another coworker—ed.] as well as her other coworkers helping her decide between Oskar and Silas.
Rosecrans: Your “pressure cooker” point is great. Sometimes I found myself wondering what kept me coming back to the story; I was trying to find the tension besides the obvious—will she/won’t she with Oskar and Silas; will she/won’t she get to do something with her novel; all the echoes of whether Casey should choose (because for many reasons she gets to!) the secure and established versus the risky and unknown—and I was casting around without much luck. But when I think about the story in terms of pressure, from grief to debt to expectations, to the rotten men who work in the restaurant, that makes sense to me. Am I describing it right?
Bindu: Yes, exactly. Although I have not personally dealt with a loss of a parent, having gone through my own struggles in life, I really relate to the feeling like you can’t catch a break and the whole world is crashing in on you. The desperation that Casey feels is very palpable. I think that is why I connected with this story so much.
Rosecrans: We’re at the halfway mark in the book. Where do you see this novel going?
Bindu: I really don’t know how things will end for her. The unpredictability of her journey is one of the things I like about this story. The optimist/romantic in me is hoping for a happy ending for Casey. That she gets published and gets a big payday so she can do what she loves most in the world with the person she loves the most. I am not sure who I am rooting for when it comes to conquering her heart. Perhaps she is better off without either guy.
Rosecrans: I would agree. Silas isn’t great, but Oskar is such a creep. One final thing. I’ve felt guilty at times reading this book, because it’s so out of step with the world outside. Casey’s grief and financial insecurity and worries over health care are relatable—and I don’t think the dream of a Big Love is going anywhere, or Big Publishing for that matter—but it feels like Casey is being set up for A Real Shot At Happiness, in the Hollywood manner, and that’s not something that exists in the world much right now, and did it ever? I don’t know. Am I totally off-base?
Bindu: I don’t think you are totally off-base. The world we live in right now is scary and bleak. I think this book offers up the notion that even though times are tough, we can and will get through it. We are not victims of circumstance and we alone have the power to change things. Sometimes it may come easily, other times you have to fight like hell. It reminds me of a quote from the Harry Potter series, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times but only to the ones that remember to turn on the light.” Please forgive me if all that sounds so cliché, but I really do feel like we are the ones that hold the keys to our happiness.
Rosecrans: Not cliché, and, in fact, as I type this, officially soothing! Thank you, Bindu for talking to us this week. Commentariat, let us know what you think, and we’ll see you back here next Wednesday to find out Casey’s fate. What will become of her novel-in-progress? Are you Team Silas, Team Oskar, Team Oskar’s-Kids-Sans-Oskar? Must we hear more about wayward acapella groups? Friends, please watch your spoilers in the comments for the sake of people who are reading by halves. See you next week.
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