What’s puzzling about the novel is how swiftly and intensely its quiet heroine captures your attention. Casey is a slight and elusive figure, getting soaked by rain as she cycles through lonely streets or shrinking from a bully at work. There’s a stomach-churning pathos to the paucity of her resources and a dogged naivety in her commitment to writing in such meagre circumstances. King makes her struggles feel monumental, grindingly bleak. Yet somehow, Casey takes hold with a vice-like grip on your heart. Reading the book feels like waiting for clouds to break – a kind of gorgeous agony.
Even if one agrees with Casey’s opinions of certain writers – I too find Hemingway’s macho posturing tedious; and I too admire Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday – there isn’t much insight on display, more a kind of sensitivity signalling. King’s narrator – or, rather, King herself – also makes some irritating mistakes: F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function was “the test of a first-rate intelligence”, not “a sign of genius”.
King’s writing is spirited, clever and funny, and her novel is better than most others you’ll read this year. But perhaps Casey’s previous boyfriend Paco, who once told her that she hates men, had a point.
Writers & Lovers is not quite a coming-of-age novel: Casey has had life experiences, including living abroad. It’s more about the tenacity to persist in the pursuit of an artistic vision, even if it may seem to some like the less adult choice. In the six years in which she has been working on her novel, most of Casey’s cohort has either “settled down” or “sold out” to more certain career paths (tax law or real estate). The precariousness of Casey’s finances is brought further into focus when she has a health scare and loses her waitressing job. While the love triangle plays out and Casey seeks new employment, the golden ring is not a husband but health insurance.
Novels about writing novels usually set pseud alarms ringing, but Writers & Lovers anchors itself in the mundane, the wry and the relatable. It’s just a shame that amid the ragged, all-too-real emotions King summons up so deftly, the plot resolution is so predictable and neat.
As a portrait of grief, Writers and Lovers is exquisite. Casey feels trapped in looping circles of sadness; in one striking scene, she feels sorry for both herself and her reflection, “sad for an infinite number of my selves”. The central love triangle is (intentionally, one feels) less captivating, and it’s disappointingly unmessy, too.
Casey is a writer before she’s a lover, with many of the nicest passages reserved for literary veneration (one fictional character is “remembered with more tenderness and love than most of the boys she’s ever known”). This makes for an at times baggy novel, but it’s a warm and buoyant romance – all the better for adulating books above boys.
Writers in fiction are usually embittered or blocked, but one of the pleasures of King’s warm, funny and sharply observed novel is Casey’s grit and passion, undimmed despite it all...
As an inadvertent love triangle develops and the grief Casey keeps under wraps threatens to burst out, the story becomes an affecting, uplifting exploration of the risks and rewards of opening up.
Writers & Lovers succeeds in all its particulars. There’s romance, there’s a moral journey and there are characters with amusing foibles. What’s more, the gags are impeccable. It’s a story sweetly poised between hard truths and hilarity, in which the heroine discovers she has what it takes to not only endure but prevail. And that’s a message we all need in these difficult times.